'Tag' has moments but doesn't leave a mark

Posted June 12, 2018 2:39 p.m. EDT

— "Tag" is, improbably, "inspired by" a true story, which adds zest to this screwball comedy. The creative liberties, however, quickly begin feeling less and less tethered to reality, yielding sporadic but diminishing bouts of just-okay fun that ultimately don't leave much of a mark, as the idea lacks the heft to sustain a whole movie.

Thanks to the cast -- headlined by Ed Helms, Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner -- and the sheer goofiness of the premise, there are some very funny moments, including a certain level of ruthlessness and edge in the early going.

That's balanced, perhaps inevitably, against a soft underbelly -- built on the notion that playing a kids' game provides a bridge to the friendships enjoyed in youth. That's sweet, but also periodically violates the old "Seinfeld" "no hugging, no learning" rule.

The movie is derived from a Wall Street Journal article, about a group of 10 friends who -- for more than two decades -- devoted one month each year to playing "tag," often going to elaborate lengths to fool their targets and dub them "it."

For movie purposes, the core group has been cut in half, and the action has been set against the backdrop of a wedding, as Hogan (Helms) rallies his buddies (Hamm, Hannibal Buress, "New Girl's" Jake Johnson) to try and finally tag Renner's Jerry, whose preternatural skill at the game has enabled him to elude them for all these years.

Jerry's wedding, they decide, is the perfect venue in order to trap him, leading to a series of escalating, madcap exchanges. They are followed in this endeavor by a Journal reporter (Annabelle Wallis), who apparently is able to drop everything and flit around the country at a moment's notice. As they say, nice work if you can get it.

Making his movie debut, director Jeff Tomsic brings considerable energy to the opening installment, as the peculiar rules are explained and Jerry is finally introduced. Possessing a kind of genius at avoiding being tagged, there's even a "Sherlock Holmes" riff as he appraises the situation, going inside his head as he figures out a means of escaping.

Hamm and Renner clearly appear to relish sinking their teeth into comedy, while Buress's character is especially quirky, giving too much thought to things like Maury Povich's TV show. Hogan's wife (Isla Fisher) is also every bit as obsessed with the game as her husband, and along with Leslie Bibb, as Jerry's soon-to-be bride; and Rashida Jones, as a former high-school crush, let women join in the silliness of what's otherwise a men-will-be-boys affair.

Warner Bros. might have picked a good window to release the film, positioning it as a raunchier counterweight to "The Incredibles 2." (Although the movie carries an "R" rating, that's almost entirely for language, as well as the Johnson character's persistent pot smoking.)

"Tag" isn't without its own kind of highs, but it's too labored and repetitive -- including its "we grow old because we stop playing" message -- to consistently connect.

The closing credits do gain a lift from featuring clips of the actual guys, offering a sense of the movie's playful underpinnings. It's a taste of a documentary version of this story, frankly, that might have been better than this mostly hit-miss Hollywood-ized version.

"Tag" opens June 15 in the U.S. It's rated R.