What happens to boys' friendships when childhood ends and midlife is just around the corner? The answer repeatedly cited in "Tag" is that men don't stop playing games because they are growing old, they grow old because they stop playing games.
From grade school to adulthood, five lifelong bros have been surprising each other with unexpected "you're it" slaps through the month of May, playing tag like a strenuous sport. It unites their now-far-apart lives with a sense of frat party excitement and gets them out of their various ruts. It also offers Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson and Jeremy Renner a chance to perform the headbanging artistry of the Three Stooges.
That broad comic focus must have been what persuaded seasoned TV director Jeff Tomsic to make this his movie debut. Unfortunately, "Tag" feels like a small-screen experience that aimed high and fell short. It's equally diverting and disappointing.
We meet Hoagie (Helms), Callahan (Hamm), Sable (Buress) and Randy (Johnson) as they prepare for their latest raid on Jerry (Renner). He's the group's never-tagged champion, whose Houdini-like ability to escape their traps has earned equal measures of their admiration and determination to bring him down.
The site of the upcoming battle is Jerry's imminent wedding, which has largely been declared a no-shenanigans zone. But there are a few loopholes in the agreement, a gap here and there through which he might be targeted.
Because he has for decades evaded every full-frontal attack, the odds of beating him on sheltered ground seem minimal. Then come the high-speed golf cart races across busy fairways, the flying tackle leaps in slow motion that make the cast hover like drones, the backwoods animal traps that snare and wallop them and the hard-core beatdown in the shopping mall.
Some of the action is funny in the rote way that seeing a man slip on a banana peel is funny. Some of the action, like watching a man choke on a banana, is not funny at all.
Physical comedy on film is an art form all its own, and "Tag" gets passages of it right. My favorite moment in the movie is a classic bounceback, with Hamm throwing a heavy chair at a huge office window for a fast escape, only to have it ricochet and knock him flat. Like the script's mosaic of stand-alone one-liners, the joke doesn't propel the story forward, but it's a good little moment.
The problem at the root of things is our old foe: the flaccid script. This is a film that thinks that the idea of genitals is so hilarious it must be trotted out at 10-minute intervals. Even if it's marginally funny in the first place — debatable — the fixation quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns, making the film a different sort of yuk fest than was intended. Then, in a gear-grinding change of tone, it reaches for an 11th-hour reveal designed to push hearts up into throats.
Some in the ensemble are better matched to the material than others. Hamm's comic chops are well-established now, while Renner can't equal him no matter how hard he tries to make his eyes twinkle. Buress leaves a good impression as the troupe's resident nerd, and his exchanges with an uncredited Carrie Brownstein as his psychologist feel like they came from her wonderful "Portlandia" series.
A posse of comedy veterans have been imported to add their special touch. Isla Fisher tears up the scenery as Hoagie's ferocious fireplug of a wife; Rashida Jones is cucumber-cool as a long-lost girlfriend of both Randy and Callahan, and Nora Dunn owns the screen in her brief appearances as the taggers' surrogate den mother. Few are given much to do, but each does all they can.
Despite its promising source material (the film is based on a Wall Street Journal story about insanely committed taggers), talented cast and good intentions, a sense of madcap fun is conspicuously absent. Over its nearly two-hour running time, "Tag" continues playing the same predictable games, feeling increasingly aged as it goes.