It seems a little auspicious that a week after an all-star, all-female cast set up shop doing glamorous grand larceny in the Oceans franchise, the boys are running around in circles, ruining each other’s lives with a schoolyard game. I don’t think I can say anything more evocative than just mentally setting up those two side-by-side images, so I’ll fall back on an old Twitter adage and request that you kindly let that sink in.
Of course, the cast, creator, and real-life subjects of Tag would not say that they are ruining each other’s lives at all, rather, they’re enhancing them with sustained annual brotherhood. But in a montage somewhere in the middle of the film we see how the game, played every year for 30 years during the last week of May, has imposed itself everywhere from funerals to delivery rooms, and, as is the case in the round we’re watching, on a wedding. It would seem fairly obvious by now that one should do some strategic family planning or just simply not pick a wedding day anywhere near Tag Week, but that wouldn’t be any fun, would it?
So, yes, every year Hoagie (Ed Helms), Randy (Jake Johnson), Callahan (Jon Hamm), Sable (Hannibal Buress), and Jerry (Jeremy Renner) cross state lines and concoct elaborate schemes to avoid It-ness and/or thrust It-ness upon each other. A reporter at The Wall Street Journal (which did in fact run the real-life story of the Spokane, Washington Tag boys), played by Annabelle Wallis, takes a kind of horrified interest in the lengths these men go, not to win the game but not to lose — as one of the guys explains it to her, “There’s no winner, there are just losers.”
The only non-loser thus far is Renner’s Jerry — in the 30 years of the game he’s never been It once, and with his impending nuptials to his high-strung fiancée Susan (Leslie Bibb), he’s announced that this will be his last year of the game. The rest of the guys are not about to let him out of the game with a spotless record, and they all descend on their hometown of Spokane to make sure he’s tagged before his wedding day. But Jerry might be the most obsessed with Tag of all of them, and as a physical trainer of apparently some renown, he’s physically unstoppable. The mundane reality of the guys’ lives gets tweaked into the fantastical when Jerry’s in the picture, with plenty of speed-ramped action and CG stunts to amplify it. We get on some level why the game occupies such a hallowed place in their lives, why even their wives and partners (particularly Isla Fisher as Hoagie’s rabidly competitive wife) are also drawn into its centrifugal pull. Tag makes their lives a movie, which makes Tag both full-circle and redundant.
In addition to his physics-defying combat skills, Jerry’s seemingly rigged the entire town up against them — messing with their heads to the degree that at one point they can’t even be certain there is a wedding. That’s the main trick of Tag — these men have spent years chipping away at all that is sacred if it gets them ahead in their game, knowing that taking advantage of supposedly vulnerable moments is the only way to win, and the game quickly becomes a who-can-go-lower fakeout-off.
The doubt about what is real and what isn’t has permeated so much of the film that when things take a turn for the serious in the final act, we the audience can’t even quite believe what we’re seeing, until the credits roll and you shrug to yourself, “Huh, I guess it was for real.” That’s a weirdly muted note to end such an otherwise over-the-top — conceptually and physically — comedy. The takeaway is supposed to be how heartwarming the group’s dedication is to this weird annual bonding session, but it’s hard not to pity how much it’s sapped the meaning from the rest of their lives — and how ultimately unaware the film is of this low-level tragedy. I can’t speak to the richness and fullness of the lives of the real-life Tag team — seen in photos and video clips in the film’s epilogue — but I suspect this might be one of the times when life surpasses art.