The game began when they were nine years old. Thirty-five years later, it’s still going strong as five lifelong friends dedicate one month each year to playing tag, the old grade-school classic most kids leave on the schoolyard — right around the time they stop believing that girls have “cooties.” If that sounds like the setup for the ultimate man-child comedy, you wouldn’t be far from the mark, although “The Hangover Part IV” this is not. And yet, nestled amid all the runaway immaturity of this loosely reality-based laffer, “Tag” delivers the compelling case that anything that manages to keep a bunch of childhood buddies in contact over the course of more than three decades can’t be all bad.
“Someone once said we don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” says Ed Helms, who’s the closest thing to a responsible adult — he’s the one with the Ph.D. — in an ensemble that makes the inspired choice of casting serious actors Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, and Jeremy Renner in comedic roles (though each has been funny before), while dry comedian Hannibal Buress rounds things out as the gang’s token black guy. (The actual “Tag Brothers” were a group of 10 white dudes from Spokane, whose story went viral after it was featured in The Wall Street Journal; the studio gets points for diversifying the lineup on-screen, even if the movie never bothers to explain why Buress is nine years younger than the next-oldest cast mate.)
While end-credits footage suggests a documentary about the real guys might have been just as fun, director Jeff Tomsic (making a perfectly capable feature debut) conveys just how extreme a game like this could get, amplifying the “action” to the point of absurdity. Helms plays Hoagie, who was “It” (the last guy tagged) on the final day of May the year before. That means 11 months later, when May rolls around again, it’s his duty to tag one of his four childhood buddies — which has become trickier as the years go by, and as jobs and marriages have scattered the old friends to different cities.
The opening scene gives audiences an idea of just how far these guys will go to get one another, as Hoagie interviews for a job as a janitor in the swanky New York insurance film where Bob Callahan (Hamm) works. Bob happens to be doing a hot-air interview with a Wall Street Journal reporter (Annabelle Wallis) when Hoagie shows up, and the scene is so outrageous, she ditches the profile assignment to pursue this new story.
That’s not quite how it happened in real life, since a colleague gave WSJ writer Russell Adams the tip on the Tag Brothers, although someone rightly concluded that this bromance might work better with a few women along for the ride. Plus, the curious journo doubles as a convenient excuse for the characters to deliver exposition every now and then — which is especially useful when these guys go changing the rules on what’s arguably the simplest game on Earth.
Their next stop introduces another female tagalong in Isla Fisher, playing Hoagie’s wife, Anna, who not only tolerates her husband’s childhood obsession but turns out to be even more competitive than the guys. Perhaps it’s a good thing that they have a “No girls” policy, since Anna is so intense, she looks as though she might hurt someone if she were allowed in the game — which she manages to be in an unofficial capacity anyway, helping Bob and Hoagie corner the next player, the recently divorced, thoroughly disheveled Chilli (Johnson), whose pot consumption rivals that of Cheech & Chong.
After rounding up Sable (Buress) mid-therapy session, the mismatched foursome — no two of whom would convincingly become friends if they met as adults — reveal why this season is special: In all the years they’ve been playing, their friend Jerry (Renner) has never been tagged, and because he scheduled his wedding (to Leslie Bibb, playing a bridezilla determined not to let the guys ruin their ceremony) for May 31, they all book a flight back to Spokane hoping to tag him before he ties the knot.
While that “Never been tagged” conceit certainly raises the stakes, it pushes “Tag” from the realm of practical jokes to all-out warfare, as Jerry resorts to borderline-violent tactics — booby traps, martial arts, paid decoys, and even jumping through windows when necessary — to maintain his streak. He is perhaps the greatest tag player of all time, as Hoagie observes at one point, although that’s one of those semi-depressing achievements, like setting the Guinness Book record for the number of jelly beans that can be stuffed up one’s nostrils, that suggests perhaps it’s a good thing that he’s apparently planning to retire.
Besides, the way his friends play, the game’s not even fair anymore, as the four of them team up to tag Jerry — although that dynamic serves the movie’s deeper theme, that friendship matters. All that bonding time gives screenwriters Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen a chance to riff on the pros and cons of staying close to old pals — the way they never forget your most embarrassing moments, or how a romantic rivalry can damage a perfectly good friendship (Rashida Jones plays the “Yoko” who came between Bob and Chilli) — culminating in an epic finale in the emergency room after one of the characters takes things a little too far.
While there are amusing bits (including an ambush in which Hoagie, dressed in old-lady drag, suffers a brutal beatdown), the last 10 minutes are easily the most satisfying. That’s effectively the inverse of most studio comedies, which front-load all the funny stuff, then limp across the finish line. Here, “Tag” leaves audiences energized and, dare I say, inspired, having delivered all that outrageousness — and there’s some wildly inappropriate stuff along the way, as these guys desecrate churches, make light of miscarriages, and cold-cock anyone who gets in the way — in service of what ultimately amounts to a sincere celebration of lasting human connections. Stick through the end credits for the film’s best joke: a priceless cover of one of the retro soundtrack’s flashback tunes.