With Judd Apatow's 2005 phenomenon The 40-Year-Old Virgin becoming a teenager later this summer, it's entirely fitting that its theme of arrested adolescence continues to dominate studio comedies, despite the third-act assurance in every one of them that, yes, it's perhaps time to grow up and put away childish things. And yet here comes Tag, a hit-or-miss goof about middle-aged men still engaged in a playground battle royale, clinging to their lost youth like a cached beer keg at the end of the night. No one has learned anything, other than these types of rowdy ensemble comedies, packed with recognizable faces and massive set-pieces, are the only ones that can compete on a blockbuster scale. Man-children create messes that can level cities.
"We grow old because we stop playing," says Hogan "Hoagie" Malloy (Ed Helms), the ringleader of this boys' club, in the opening narration. It's philosophy by way of Cocoon: Acting young has a rejuvenating quality, even if you don't have access to a magical space-egg. Every May for the past 30 years, Hoagie and his buddies take up the same epic game of tag they've been perpetuating since they were nine-year-olds, only now they have the resources to make the entire Western half of the United States their playground. In an early scene, Hoagie talks his way into a job as the world's most overqualified janitor just to gain access to his buddy Bob (Jon Hamm), the CEO of an insurance company. No backsies!
With a Wall Street Journal reporter (Annabelle Wallis) in tow, Hoagie, Bob, and Hoagie's fanatical tag-freak wife Anna (a scene-stealing Isla Fisher) keep the game rolling from Denver to Portland and finally to Spokane, where the boys grew up together. They dash through apartments and fire escapes in a Bourne Ultimatum-style foot-race to nab their stoner buddy "Chili" (Jake Johnson) and hide out at a therapist's office to get Sable (Hannibal Buress) mid-session. But all roads lead to the semi-mythical Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who's so speedy and diabolical that he's never been caught in 30 years. His upcoming wedding gives them the best chance they've ever had to pin him down, but Jerry has thought through every possible scenario.
There's a wholly unnecessary subplot involving an old romantic rivalry between Chili and Bob over a newly widowed crush (Rashida Jones), but Tag mostly stays focused on the lizard-brain scheming necessary to get to the next "You're it!". There are decades-old by-laws scrawled on wide-ruled paper and amendments to those by-laws drawn around the wedding, at the insistence of Jerry's high-strung bride-to-be (Leslie Bibb). But mostly, Tag delights in the utter shamelessness of the game writ large, which finds Hoagie and his buddies willing to ambush an AA meeting or waterboard a gym flunky to get some information. As Jerry, Renner's Marvel-ized image allows him to be the funny Grandmaster at the film's center, planting elaborate ruses to misdirect his friends and, when cornered, showing the slo-mo dexterity of peak-era Jackie Chan. First-time director Jeff Tomsic doesn't play those action sequences halfway, either: Tag goes as heavy on the effects and choreography as a conventional Hollywood actioner.
The funniest scenes in Tag underline the grotesque aggression of big kids playing a little kids' game, but like most comedies of arrested adolescence, a message is tucked away in the bushes, ready to pounce. Turns out that tag is a metaphor for friendship, a literal way for Hoagie and the boys to stay in touch with one another, and Jerry's expertise at the game has put him at a distance from what's really important. For a film this thoroughly devoted to watching men of means act like frathouse yahoos, that kind of earnestness is a hard sell, like a kid being forced into an apology he doesn't really mean.
Tag does better when it stays connected to the past, like the old rec-room clubhouse that hasn't changed since the '80s. The mixtapes are boss — A Tribe Called Quest's "Check the Rhime," Beastie Boys' "Shake Your Rump," and Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation" highlight a soundtrack graced with era-specific radio hits, too — and the fantasy of eternal youth is as potent as the weed still tucked into the ceiling. The inevitable closing-credit montage of the real taggers suggests a lower-key, more relatable version of Tag than the gargantuan action-comedy Tomsic has made instead. Maybe then the tag-as-friendship message would have read more authentic than cynical.