At least Hannibal Buress is funny

Is it to the film’s credit if you laugh a great deal, but every laugh is a result of a sole performer in the ensemble cast? I suppose that denotes some enjoyment out of the film, which is the aim of the director (first-timer Jeff Tomsic) and screenwriters, (Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen), but what if, for every moment that performer isn’t on screen, you’re gripping your forehead to shield yourself from the cringey jokes, gaping in disbelief at the moments of attempted pathos and despairing over the demise of American studio comedies? More importantly, can I, as a reviewer, recommend a film based on its, maybe, five to ten minutes of amusement, due to one performer’s total time on screen?

Probably not.

Still, it’s worth pointing out and talking about Hannibal Buress, a member of the cast of comedy hard-hitters that includes Isla Fischer, Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner, all of whom deflate, melt and turn to mist in the scorching presence of Buress and his effortless, comedic grace.

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Tag is based on a short article written by Russell Adams for the Wall Street Journal. It’s a mildly amusing fluff piece about a group of guys who have been playing tag (we call it ‘tiggy’) for something like 40 years, every year, for a whole month. The article points out amusing moments in which one surprises the other with an elaborate tag, such as the moment when one of the guys sneaks into his mate’s house late at night and flips the light switch on in his bedroom. His wife, hip to the game, screams at him to run. There are sweet moments like this in the article. During Tag’s credits we see recorded clips of the guys on whom the characters are based, dressed up as old ladies, springing each other at work, etc.

Both Russel’s article and these tacked-on clips achieve more in the way of emotional resonance than Tomsic’s movie. The desperate attempts to inject some hint of thematic resonance and emotional payoff in screenplay mostly results in Hogan (Helms) explaining the plot to journalist Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis), explaining how much this means to them and Rebecca remarking how this game really ‘brought you guys together’. When none of this exposition works, Hogan suddenly has cancer.

During the ludicrous dramatic bombshell that feels like a rouse played by the character —until you realise it’s just a rouse played on the audience—Kevin (Buress) remarks, ‘That machine looks like it’s definitely doing something’, referring to Hogan’s life support machine.

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Buress is the only one with lines that don’t feel crafted by a team of trend-conscious, feelings-cautious comedy writers in a boardroom. Randy (Johnson) is the stoner of the group, but Buress is the one with the disaffected tone, the squinty eyes and the permanently unfazed outlook. Known for playing sidekicks like Eric Andre’s ambivalently present co-host on The Eric Andre Show and Ilana’s casual boyfriend on Broad City, he’s good in these shows but it’s always amid great writing and funny cast members: Here, in a big-budget studio comedy, where comedy turns into camera-mugging studio quota-filling, Buress shines as the only one naturally funny enough to make any of this turgid material work.

There are a couple of clever sequences, though, as Tomsic applies the same approach John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein did in the far better Game Night (2018), which is to eschew the Apatow-nurtured approach of pointing a still camera at a bunch of funny guys riffing. Renner plays Jerry, never been tagged, and he’s crafted as the movie’s kind of villain. He’s getting married, though they’re not sure how seriously to take that, and he keeps finding reasons to dupe the guys into thinking they can tag him. A well-filmed sequence takes place in a forest with Jerry’s doubles leaping out from trees, Tomsic’s camera jumpy and frenetic to match the gag-a-minute comedy style.

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Isla Fischer’s manic and entertaining comedy chops are reduced to screeched profanities, while Rashida Jones plays an old flame. Her role is ultimately to walk into rooms without intention and start talking to either Randy or Bob (Hamm), who both fancy her. The women’s roles feel like well-intentioned attempts to include them in the comedy instead of sidelining them as the stereotyped disapproving spouses, but their material is so poor and the attempt so half-arsed it feels more like two steps backwards. It worked for Rachel McAdams in Game Night and Rose Byrne in Bad Neighbours (2014)—here, not so much.

It’s probably a belaboured point by now, but this movie is worth it purely for Hannibal Buress’s throwaway lines. Hopefully, someone will make an edited version of the film with all the rubbish cut out. That way, it’ll only take up a few minutes of your time.