One antidote for blockbuster fatigue during the summer is a loose, lighthearted and playful comedy. “Tag” is based on a 2013 Wall Street Journal article by Russell Adams about a group of friends who have played the same game of being “it” or “not it” for 23 years. The featherweight romp follows the stranger-than-fiction antics of a group of men who subscribe to the belief that “we don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”
With a cast of likable actors at their most lively, and some energetic directing from TV veteran Jeff Tomsic making his feature film debut, “Tag” is, like the game itself, a whole lot of rambunctious fun.
The script, by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen, focuses on the the last few days in May, the month during which this group of childhood pals play their official game of tag. The crew’s unofficial booster Hoagie (Ed Helms) lures his friends into a weekend of debauchery with the threat that their friend Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is planning to retire from the game. The catch? Jerry’s never been tagged — he’s the best the game’s ever seen, and these guys are bound and determined to tag him.
From the opening scene — when Hoagie, a successful vet, applies for and gets a janitorial job at his friend’s insurance company in order to infiltrate his building and tag him — we know this isn’t just a normal game of tag. This crew goes to some extreme measures: costumes, booby traps, body doubles, and the fake-outs escalate during Jerry’s wedding weekend until they’ve pushed it too far.
Hoagie, the self-proclaimed “heart and soul of the game” doesn’t know when to stop. He’s near maniacal in his quest to tag Jerry, but as becomes clear, it’s not about the tagging. It’s about being close to each other, hanging out and just playing with your friends, a seriously lost art form in adulthood.
Part of the easy fun of “Tag” is how the filmmakers just place the characters into this environment and let them bounce off each other. The personas do verge on typecasting — Jon Hamm is the dashing insurance man Bob; Jake Johnson, the deadbeat stoner Chilli; Hannibal Buress, the laconic weirdo Sable. Renner plays the hyper-vigilant trainer Jerry as a cross between his Jason Bourne and Neo from “The Matrix,” dodging attempted tags with lightning fast martial arts moves. As Anna, Hoagie’s intense wife, Isla Fisher could be an older version of her wacky “Wedding Crashers” character. But it’s a treat to watch them do what they do best. Hamm has rarely been this appealingly easygoing and jocular on screen, and it’s a good look for him.
Besides Anna, the most interesting female character is Susan (Leslie Bibb), Jerry's fiancée, and the two express equal mania for competition. But Annabelle Wallis, who plays Rebecca, the reporter there “for the story,” is essentially disposable, merely an exposition device. Rashida Jones is an always welcome presence, but her character Cheryl, a long-time crush of both Chilli and Bob, serves only to stir up some tension between the pals (at Jerry’s devious design).
While “Tag” doesn’t get every character beat right, it nails the energy and enduring companionship that the game has engendered among the friends. It’s the kind of frothy escapist fare that goes down easy on a hot summer day, with a big old beating heart to boot.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Rated: R, for language throughout, crude sexual content, drug use and brief nudity.
Playing: In general release