The first and perhaps the only important thing to know about “Tag,” Jeff Tomsic’s comedy about five middle-aged men who have been playing the same game of tag for 30 years, is that it’s based on a true story. Russell Adams' front-page article for The Wall Street Journal in 2013 described how several old school chums still went to absurd lengths — flying across the country, hiding in car trunks — to play a children’s game. Underneath their competitiveness and roughhousing, though, was a touching desire to stay close, and to stay young.
“Tag” has great potential for juvenile high jinks, raunchy humor and pangs of tenderness — the same formula that turned “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “I Love You, Man" and so many other bromances into hits. The promising cast is led by Ed Helms, no stranger to the genre (“The Hangover”). All the concept really needs are sympathetic characters and a plausible story.
Instead, “Tag” has irritating characters and barely any story at all. It opens with Helms’ Hoagie Malloy, a doctor, becoming a janitor at an insurance company just to ambush its CEO, Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm). Hoagie’s plan unfolds in front of a gobsmacked Wall Street Journal reporter (now a slender blonde played by Annabelle Wallis). Spotting a story, she instantly joins their journey to find the next players.
They pick up Chilli, an incorrigible stoner played by Jake Johnson, and Sable (Hannibal Buress), an amiable space cadet. Their goal: to tag the one player who’s never been “it,” Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner). His wedding is coming up, and this could be their chance. In the movie's only emotionally compelling subplot, Chilli and Callahan will also re-connect with a shared old flame (Rashida Jones).
Jerry is a riff on Renner’s action-movie persona in “The Avengers” and “The Bourne Legacy,” a lightning-fast martial artist who narrates his moves in voice-over and in slow motion. Jerry isn’t funny, though, because Renner plays him with such a mocking, hostile, superior tone. When Jerry starts chloroforming his hapless friends, it’s clear “Tag” has no idea how unlikable this character really is.
The only reason to sit through “Tag” is the closing credits, which include videos of the real-life friends jumping out at each other in parking lots, at ballgames and so on. There’s a sweetness and affection to these moments that “Tag,” unfortunately, never manages to touch.