It’s rare to see the famed “based on a true story” line appear in a comedy trailer. Usually, those words are reserved for movies based on harrowing real-life events or as a clever way to draw people into a horror film. However, the upcoming comedy Tag is based on a different kind of true story — one that’s grounded in a long-standing friendship between 10 friends who started playing a game of tag in high school and mostly never stopped.
Tag stars Jeremy Renner, Jake Johnson, Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Isla Fisher, and Hannibal Buress as a group of friends who have been playing the same game of tag since high school. Renner’s character, Jerry, is ready to retire from the game after managing to avoid ever being “it.” His friends all come together in hopes of finally tagging him, which leads to one crazy month as everyone bands together to tag their untaggable pal. The trailer includes lots of fun moments that feel like Hollywood embellishments — like Hamm’s character tagging one of his friends while his wife is giving birth — but make no mistake, the real people who inspired the film have gone to some serious extremes to tag each other.
In 2013, The Wall Street Journal ran a story about a man named Brian Dennehy and his nine friends who loved to play tag on the campus of their high school. One of his friends, Joe Tombari, was almost “it” for life when he failed to tag someone on his last day of high school in 1982. For a while, that was indeed the end of the game for the group as they went their separate ways in life, but a reunion roughly eight years later led to the game starting up once more — this time with a contract.
Patrick Schultheis, who was a first-year lawyer at the time, drafted the Tag Participation Agreement. The primary rule is that each year the game runs for the entire month of February, and whoever is “it” at the end of the month holds the title until the following year. There are no geographic restrictions to the game, which leads to intricate plans being plotted and lots of frequent-flyer miles being used.
Sean Raftis once flew all the way to Seattle in order to tag Tombari by curling up in the trunk of a car and springing out at him unexpectedly. His plan worked — but his friend’s wife ended up being a casualty when she tripped off of the sidewalk from the fright. “My wife was so startled she fell and injured her knee, but she wasn’t angry; she was pleased to see Sean,” Tombari told The Guardian. “All our partners are good-natured about the game — they even get involved in the sting operations.”
One scene in the trailer that moviegoers may suspect is fabricated is very much based on real life. Yes, one of the guys tagged someone at their father’s funeral, and according to Tombari, it remains one of the game’s most memorable moments. He explained to The Guardian, “Perhaps one of the most unexpected tags was during Mike’s father’s funeral. During the service, he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to find Joe mouthing, ‘You’re it.’ Afterwards, he said his father would have approved, because he found our game hilarious.”
While it may seem strange to think of a group of middle-aged men keeping one game of tag going for more than two decades, at the heart of their commitment is a dedication to keeping their close bond alive. Now that they’ve spread out across the country, gotten married, started careers, and had kids, seeing each other isn’t as easy as it once was, but for one month out of the year, they never know when an old friend might pop out of a bush to surprise them — literally.
As Tombari said in his interview,
“The best thing about the game is that it has kept us in touch over all these years — it forces us to meet and has formed a strong bond between us, almost like brothers. How many [40-somethings] can say they still see nine friends they went to school with? We joke that we’ll still be playing in our retirement homes. I plan to use a wheelchair instead of a Zimmer frame, because it’s faster.”
If the movie can capture the heart of the friendship that exists between its real-life inspirations, then Tag could become one of the Summer’s sweetest and most hilarious films.