Hey, guess what! The movie Tag is "inspired by" the real life group of friends who attended Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, Washington. Spokane happens to be where I grew up, so when I saw the characters in the movie all flying home to Spokane, I hoped to see some identifying landmarks. No such luck: in this movie, Atlanta stands in for our state's second-largest city. So, that's . . . new. (To my surprise, not even the Spokesman-Review's article about the Spokane premiere mentions this.)
I don't suppose it matters. The story is about a group of friends, after all, and not about a city. Honestly, as I watched this movie, in which five guys have been playing the same game of tag one month out of every year for three decades. I imagined the real-life guys weren't as "fun" as they are in the movie. They must be a really disruptive pain in the ass to everyone around them, particularly as teenagers. There's a scene in the movie where these guys as middle-aged men are chasing each other through a hospital, and no one around them seems to care. Uh-huh, okay.
And then? At the very end, we see home video clips of the real-life guys taping themselves finding creative ways to tag each other, some of them reflecting scenes that had been depicted in the movie. Or were these home movies staged to replicate the scenes? Either way, watching the old guys play the game proves surprisingly endearing.
And that's the thing about this movie. It's not hysterical, but it's funny enough. Maybe with the exception of a seriously misguided sequence in which a gym receptionist is threatened with waterboarding. Director Jeff Tomsik, here making his first feature film, seems unsure of exactly how much of a joke to make this. And a movie like this, where boundaries are always being pushed, needs an assured hand.
It's the cast who is here to make sure Tag doesn't feel like a waste of time. Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson, and Jeremy Renner as the friend who has managed never to get tagged in all thirty years of the game -- they all have great chemistry, and it's easy to believe them as longtime friends who managed to find a novel way to stay connected over the years. Isla Fisher is a standout as Ed Helms's ridiculously competitive wife; she steals nearly every scene she's in. Annabelle Wallis is a bit wasted as the Wall Street Journal reporter along for the ride (the article she wrote about them actually having been a real thing, published in January 2013). She never gets anything particularly interesting thing to say or do, except be a prettier version of the male journalist who actually wrote the piece.
Hence the whole "inspired by" bit -- the extensiveness of artistic license is pretty obvious here. But, there is a genuineness to it too. In spite of an uneven script, even the fictionalized characters are endearing. I found myself surprisingly touched by all their shenanigans in the end.
There's plenty of dumb, slapstick humor, sure. You don't go into a movie like this exactly expecting depth, although there's a little more of that than you might expect. It's refreshing, after all, to see healthy close friendships between a bunch of straight men. God knows what kind of collateral property damage they've caused over the years, but their bond is of a unique kind that can't be broken.