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Movie review: What could've been family fun becomes vulgar escapade in R-rated 'Tag'
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Jon Hamm as Callahan and Ed Helms as "Hoagie" in "Tag." - photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

"TAG" — 2½ stars — Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress, Annabelle Wallis, Jeremy Renner; R (language throughout, crude sexual content, drug use and brief nudity); in general release

Inspired by a true story, Jeff Tomsic’s “Tag” follows lifelong friends who have found a unique way of staying connected over the years: They’ve been playing the same game of tag for three decades.

Even though they're spread across the United States, every May, the lives of five players get a lot more exciting. At any moment, a childhood friend could appear out of nowhere — at work, home or anywhere in-between — ready to tag them.

There's Callahan (Jon Hamm), the CEO of a Fortune 800 insurance company in New York City, and Hoagie (Ed Helms), a successful veterinarian who has no issue with getting a janitorial job in New York so he can tag Callahan.

Then there's Randy (Jake Johnson), who has fallen on some hard times in the wake of a recent divorce and spends most of his time getting high with his father (Brian Dennehy). Sable's (Hannibal Buress) background is a bit unclear, though we know it involves therapy for paranoia.

The game’s superstar is Jerry (Jeremy Renner), a fitness club owner in the guys’ hometown of Spokane, Washington. According to legend, he’s never been tagged. At least that’s what everyone tells Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis), the Wall Street Journal reporter whose profile of Callahan quickly turns into a story on the annual game.

“Tag” kicks into gear with the news that Jerry might finally be ready to call it quits, thus preserving an undefeated 30-year record — but the other guys are having none of it. So when word leaks of Jerry’s impending wedding at the end of the month, the game is on. Callahan, Hoagie, Randy and Sable — along with Hoagie’s hyper-competitive wife Anna (Isla Fisher) — gather in Spokane, hoping to tag the untaggable Jerry in a moment of weakness.

The reigning champ is onto their plans, though, so Jerry has also invited an old friend named Cheryl (Rashida Jones) to the festivities. Cheryl has a history with both Randy and Callahan, and their lingering love triangle threatens to disrupt the gang’s plans to trap Jerry.

As plots go, “Tag’s” is about as thin as they come, and at times it is clear that the premise isn’t quite enough to carry 100 minutes worth of action. Tomsic gets his best mileage out of the gang’s various attempts to trap Jerry, who seems to morph into a superhero — perhaps an Avenger? — whenever confronted.

If you’ve seen the trailer or are even half paying attention, it’s pretty obvious that under the silly game, the guys are really just finding a way to stay involved in each other’s lives long after many other similar friendships get scattered to the wind. The idea has some real potential, but “Tag” struggles to balance its exaggerated slapstick against its genuine sincerity, especially as the third act tries to bring everything together.

The crowded cast makes character development a challenge, so more often than not, “Tag” settles for zany gags and exaggerated action scenes, which can admittedly be a lot of fun — such as when Jerry displays his uncanny knack for improvised strategy and perception whenever the other guys try to back him into a corner.

Sadly, “Tag” earns its R rating with enough profanity and vulgarity to keep things on the more adult side, which is too bad, since the subject matter seems to carry a broader appeal. (The obligatory footage of the film’s real-life subjects tacked on to the closing credits suggests the profanity is true to its source.)

In the end, “Tag” will definitely get you to laugh, but it will also leave you wishing it was a better movie.

"Tag" is rated R for language throughout, crude sexual content, drug use and brief nudity; running time: 100 minutes.

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