It saves a lot of time when a movie inadvertently reviews itself. Around the halfway point of “Tag,” the character played by Hannibal Buress suddenly blurts out, “This is terrible.” How right he is. The silly but rather heartwarming real-life story about a group of Spokane high-school classmates who kept their friendship alive over the decades by devoting one week a year to a long-running game of tag might have been the basis for a sweet, charming little comedy. Instead writers Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen and director Jeff Tomsic have turned it into a frantic, vulgar, unfunny action farce that does a disservice to the actual guys who inspired it.
In the script that McKittrick and Steilen have built from scratch on the basic premise, retaining little more than the Washington locale (though the movie was shot in Georgia), Hogan, or “Hoagy,” Malloy (Ed Helms) is the wild-eyed sparkplug, insisting that corporate insurance CEO Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), ditzy Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress) and pothead Randy “Chilli” Ciliano (Jake Johnson) join him in a last-ditch effort to get arrogant Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner), the guy who’s never been tagged over all their years of play, before he retires from the game upon his marriage to Susan (Leslie Bibb). Other people drawn into the fray are Hoagy’s wife Anna (Isla Fisher), who’s even more manic than her hubby and would love to play if there weren’t a rule against women participating; Hoagy’s mom Linda (Nora Dunn); Cheryl (Rashida Jones), whom Bob and Chilli have both been infatuated with since childhood; and bartender Lou (Steve Berg), who’s always wanted to play the game with the guys. There’s also Rebecca Crosby (Annabelle Wallis), the Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote the story of the actual taggers and here watches their flamboyant traps and escapes with a combination of fascination and horror.
The resultant movie is a series of episodes, most involving a frenetic chase and increasingly complicated and violent means of avoiding being tagged. The pursuits often involve cinematographer Larry Blanford’s switching to slow-motion and vertiginous front-face shots that are dismal intrusions on his usual mediocre camerawork, while the slapstick grows more and more brutal as the plot progresses; by the closing reels it’s become so nasty that it’s often actually unpleasant to watch. Of course periodically there are attempts to sandwich some sentimental slop into the mix, culminating in a syrupy finish based on a twist as cheaply manipulative as it is incredible. Throughout Tomsic’s direction aims determinedly for the lower denominator, and unhappily hits the target.
And as if that weren’t bad enough, the writers—not unexpectedly, given the picture’s origins in Will Ferrell’s production outfit—add a constant stream of “naughty” sexual references that grow increasingly nauseating as the movie progresses, especially since they’re so utterly gratuitous. Perhaps the worst example comes toward the close in a sequence involving Thomas Middleditch as a goofy gym manager, which manages to combine crude gay references with threats of physical torture. The result is definitely not a laugh riot, and neither is another sequence set at an AA meeting.
The cast tries desperately to inject some humor into this dreary parade of frenetic coarseness and stupidity, but they all fail, though for different reasons. At the extremes are Helms, who mugs furiously to decreasing effect, and Renner, who, on the evidence of the earlier Ferrell misfire “The House” and this picture, has absolutely no aptitude for comedy. On the Helms side of the equation are Fisher, Johnson, Bibb and Berg, and toward the Renner end of the spectrum Hamm, Wallis and Jones. Closer to the middle are Buress and Middleditch, whose blissfully bewildered attitude comes as a breath of fresh air in an otherwise arid comic desert.
While watching this doleful misfire, you might while away the time considering what childhood game might inspire Ferrell and his confederates next. How about “Jacks!” or “The Tetherball Movie”? The mind boggles.
If, however, you sit through “Tag,” do be sure to stay around for the closing credits, which feature a musical gag that’s brighter than anything that’s preceded it.