Two grown men, one with CGI arms, playing a child’s game.
Image: Warner Brothers/IMDB

The popular children’s game Tag—where kids run around getting “tagged” until one survivor remains—does nothing more than foster strategic skills and provide a healthy amount of cardio for its participants. One person in the game wins, while everyone else loses. The movie Tag, which stars a crew of occasionally humorous attractive actors (Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress and Isla Fisher), is similarly as stressful as a long game of tag, but in this case the viewer’s enthusiasm comes in bursts and waves, and the entire time, you’re wondering when someone will just become “it” so you can go home.

The plot is based on a true story, which would make for a fantastic documentary in lieu of this strange movie (currently in theaters) about five grown men playing a children’s game. In 2013, the Wall Street Journal wrote about the real-life group of men in their 40s—childhood friends from Spokane, Washington—who’ve been engaging in an ongoing and complex game of Tag for over 23 years. Via WSJ:

One February day in the mid-1990s, Mr. Tombari and his wife, then living in California, got a knock on the door from a friend. “Hey, Joe, you’ve got to check this out. You wouldn’t believe what I just bought,” he said, as he led the two out to his car.

What they didn’t know was Sean Raftis, who was “it,” had flown in from Seattle and was folded in the trunk of the Honda Accord. When the trunk was opened he leapt out and tagged Mr. Tombari, whose wife was so startled she fell backward off the curb and tore a ligament in her knee.

“I still feel bad about it,” says Father Raftis, who is now a priest in Montana. “But I got Joe.”

[MILD SPOILERS AHEAD] The movie mirrors much of its source: the game is active for one month during the year, there is a tag contract, and the lengths these men go to for one month out of the year to no longer suffer in shame as “it” are beyond reason. The action in the movie version causes much more bodily harm, and the plot is adjusted from real life for drama’s sake. Jerry (Renner), a lithe, fit personal gym aficionado, is the tag champion. Sable (Buress), Bob (Hamm), Hoagie (Helms), and his wife Anna (Fisher) form an alliance and attempt to stage a coup at Jerry’s wedding—most of which happens in disastrous comedic set pieces that aren’t quite funny or absurd enough to work. Through flashbacks, we see the game stretching through various life events, including funerals and births. The game is used as an excuse to keep these men in touch, though one does wonder why, if they really do like each other as much as they profess to, no one simply picks up the phone or sends a friendly email instead.

Throughout the movie, the stakes are raised and very little is spared; there’s a miscarriage joke and an AA meeting in a church that turns into a demonstration of Renner’s parkour skills and his willingness to go to an uncomfortable extreme to avoid ceding the throne. Logic is in the wind in many films, but even more so in Tag. The trouble is that the movie doesn’t go far enough. Halfway through the film, I scrawled in my notes: “Why isn’t this a horror movie?” As frightened as I am by my own shadow, this is not a suggestion I would make lightly. As a genre, horror would allow for Renner as Jerry to fully embody the sinister, channeling the Saw franchise’s Jigsaw Killer, upping the stakes by including literal murder as one of the consequences. Hamm and the rest of the ensemble are merely fine. Jake Johnson, as an affable stoner with little else to live for but the game, was clearly meant to be a comedic character, but all I felt for him was pity.

As Ed Helms’s spitfire wife Anna, Isla Fisher is a fiercely competitive spirit, barred from playing the game due to a strict no girls allowed policy enacted at the game’s inception and remaining law from thereon out. When the group confronts an employee played by Thomas Middleditch in a strangely appealing beard and a discomfiting rattail at Jerry’s gym, Anna is the one who screams with the most enthusiasm when the group hesitates to waterboard him. Including her in the game as a worthy opponent for Jerry and his bride-to-be, Leslie Bibb, a bridezilla with a crazed grin who is the mastermind behind the miscarriage gag, would’ve drastically improved the film. Instead, we are treated to a barrage of scenes featuring beloved actors smashing their bodies through plate glass windows and acting like, well, children.

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There is a slight shift at the end of the film, but it’s tonally confusing. By that point, every character has been so foolish that it’s easy to read what happens as the ultimate ruse, a strategy concocted over years calibrated specifically to silence Jerry’s competitive spirit and allow him to just be with his friends. To make that choice would’ve made the narrative much more compelling, but the movie ends and the credits roll, and all you’re left with is lingering confusion and disappointment.

If you choose to escape the summer heat and slip into a matinee, your reward for making it to the end is home footage of the movie’s source: 10 grown men in khaki shorts and dad jeans who clearly love each other, driving golf carts and popping out of mascot uniforms to tag—and hug—their friends, with enthusiasm and with love. They got to have all the fun.