‘Tag’ — a ridiculous pretext for a serious project


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Cedar Rapids’ Jeff Tomsic directs summer action comedy ‘Tag.’ — video still

If you have already settled the issue of whether longstanding male camaraderie and competition gives you license to fake a pregnancy and a subsequent miscarriage, destroy your parents’ home, disrupt an AA meeting, lie to friends and family or leap through a church’s stained-glass windows, all in order to win a game of tag, then your summer may be complete without seeing Jeff Tomsic’s current movie of the same name. Answering this question, which occurs naturally to almost no one, is central to the message of this rambunctious summer comedy. If, on the other hand, you are looking for 100 minutes of mindless summer comedy with crisp humor and A-list stars, then — alas — there is also probably no huge need to see this film. The good jokes are sporadic at best, the stars are a little outdated, and the writing really does them no favors.

In the waning days of the current graduation season, though, Tag provides a ridiculous pretext for a serious project: remembering close friends from our own pasts and giving a cold reckoning of how good a job we have really done keeping up with those people from our formative years.

The film is based on an actual Wall Street Journal story from 2013 about a group of school friends — all male — who decide to play a nation-wide game of tag as a way to stay in touch and maintain their shared spirit of joviality and competition. (The closing credits play over home video of the real-life taggers.) This tenuous relationship to actual life provides the frame for Tomsic’s film, as a fictional WSJ reporter has her interview with Jon Hamm’s character interrupted as he gets tagged by Ed Helms to start the action.

Much of the subsequent material will be familiar — unlikely action sequences, transient one-liners, absurd physical comedy and somehow unavoidable penis jokes. This film is infinitely familiar with all of the foregoing, and as a big-budget summer comedy, Tag has everything you have come to expect, for better or worse. Helms, after all, will likely not go down as one of the indispensable actors of American cinema in the 21st century, but he most definitely will go down as virtually a genre unto himself: a clearly identified symbol of class-constrained mischief, predictable deviousness involving minivans and middle-aged male idiocy. His mere presence in a movie trailer may very well tell you what you are going to get.

Like all stories about childhood friends in middle age, Tag at its heart is about mortality and the bonds of friendship that deny it some of its terrible power. Though it may be difficult to read Hamm as a very convincing memento mori, this message nonetheless forms the core of the film. The slogan of the group, repeated throughout, is an apparently misattributed Benjamin Franklin quote: “We don’t stop playing because we get older, we get older because we stop playing.” (I somewhat preferred the less-encouraging version of this motto given by Jake Johnson’s character as he tries to explain the goal of tag itself, “There are no winners,” he points out, “there are just not-losers.”)

Jeff Tomsic is a Cedar Rapids native and graduate of CR Washington High School. Tag is his first feature film. Prior to this release, he has been known mainly for short projects — his I’m Having a Difficult Time Killing My Parents appeared at Sundance in 2011 — as well as Comedy Central episodes. Despite the predictability of his film, Tomsic does make some interesting decisions with what he is given. Rashida Jones is entertaining as the fought-over old flame, despite the limits of her dialogue, and the uncredited Brian Dennehy as the stoned father to Johnson’s Chili adds some much-needed texture. (Hilariously, one of the players in the real-life tag group was also named Brian Dennehy.) Also of interest are the random philosophical observations by Hannibal Buress’ character which punctuate many of the action sequences and are almost entirely unrelated to whatever is going on in the story (but provide alternate punchlines when the ones in the scene fall flat).

You have seen a version of this movie before, but American cinema in the summertime is nothing if not generous. If you need to step out from the pool for a few hours to watch Tag in air-conditioned comfort, then by all means do it. Ed Helms is Ed Helms, Hamm wears suits for which he is probably a little too old, the semi-relevant female characters never talk directly to each other, Johnson is stoned and the black character gets some good punchlines. If you are looking for a Hollywood artist with Iowa connections who is neither a hobbit, on trial for vehicular homicide, or Ashton Kutcher, then Jeff Tomsic may be your guy. Tag is currently playing at cinemas in the area.

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