Film: Guarding Tess
Demeanor: Unusually stiff and stodgy, with just a hint of boiling rage.
Hair Quality: Very professional.
Peformance Quality: Five Cages Out of Ten.
One of the things that’s actually helped me quite a bit when working on this Year of the Cage project is the unwavering support I’ve gotten from my surprisingly game girlfriend. She’s sat and watched nearly all of the movies in this series with me, despite the fact that she is nowhere near the Nicolas Cage fan I am, nor is she even especially interested in mainstream film. I’m amazed she’s stuck with me since she clearly hasn’t liked many of the movies in the series thus far. In fact, for the last ten or so films in a row, she’s ended the screening with a now familiar question.
"Why did they make that movie?"
Usually I have some intellectualized answer for her about the meanings of this and that or whatever, or sometimes I just joke that a movie is just a movie, and people who make movies often are crazy people. In the case of Guarding Tess, the same question was posed, and for once, I was a bit at a loss. I didn’t have a joke or a quip to explain away its existence. In truth, I couldn’t explain the movie away because I barely felt like I’d even watched a movie. It was more like 90 or so minutes of my life had just been redacted, a black line drawn through whatever section of my brain housed whatever it was I was supposed to have seen. A minute after finishing Guarding Tess, I could barely remember what I’d even watched.
To be honest, when conceiving Year of the Cage, I hadn’t taken movies like Guarding Tess into account. I envisioned this feature as a celebration of all things Nicolas Cage, but the truth of the matter is that in saying that, I was really only considering the very best, and the very worst of what Cage’s catalog had to offer. I hadn’t paid appropriate consideration to that dense, unattractive middle ground of mediocrity in which Guarding Tess resides. Guarding Tess is neither a great movie nor an awful one. Nicolas Cage is neither at the height of his game, nor a screaming, fitting mess. He’s just a dull leading man in a dull movie. I’d almost forgotten that could even happen.
There is certainly an importance to taking movies like Guarding Tess into account when judging the entire oeuvre of Our Greatest Living Actor. This isn’t an isolated incident of dullness, as we’ll come to learn as the year goes on. There was a whole period of Cage’s career—one that reared its head again in fairly recent years—where Cage was little more than just a typical lead actor. He did quirky comedies, romantic comedies, romantic dramas, and all sorts of other middling Hollywood tripe that barely registered as halfway memorable. It’s a darker period for fans like myself, but it’s also unarguably one of the most successful periods of his career.
Not that Guarding Tess was some huge box office success (it only made $7 million more than its modest $20 million budget), but in terms of exposure, it couldn’t have done anything but help Cage, now emerging from a time of strange independent ventures and ill-advised career moves. To have the opportunity to act alongside Shirley MacLaine in a mainstream comedy must have seemed like a tremendous thing to Our Greatest Living Actor. And, to be fair, there are moments in Guarding Tess where you can almost see a genuinely charming and funny movie peek through the clouds of abject mediocrity that obscure much of the rest of the film.
The early goings of Guarding Tess suggest a lighthearted political comedy assured to be barely political, perhaps in the vein of Dave or My Fellow Americans, but in truth it’s more of a barely political spin on the cranky-yet-lovable old person comedy/drama, like a Driving Miss Daisy, but way less racist.
We first find Cage, as Secret Service agent Doug Chesnic, saying goodbye to his previous post as the head of security for a former First Lady. Initially we don’t know why Doug is so giddy to be leaving this job, but when he gleefully strolls into his boss’ office, only to be told his former charge wants him back, he flips. He’s incensed, desperately trying to wriggle his way out of the predicament he’s been presented with. He really, really doesn’t want to go back to Ohio. But why?
It might have something to do with that former First Lady being an insufferable, bitchy monster. Okay, maybe that’s overselling it a tad, but MacLaine is definitely playing up the meanness as Tess Carlisle, the widow of the last President and a woman deemed a “National Treasure” by pretty much everyone in this movie who doesn’t actually have to work with her. She’s sarcastic, irritable, and seemingly above showing the smallest hint of empathy to her beleaguered staff.
It’s no wonder Doug doesn’t want to go back. On top of being an out-of-the-way posting (the Secret Service equivalent of manning a radio tower in Alaska) with no discernible room for upward growth, he has to deal with a woman who seemingly delights in tormenting him.
This is all done in that very cheerful early ’90s comedy way, with lots of classical music underscoring the various mild antics that go on as they poke and prod at one another. Cage’s mopeyness upon returning doesn’t last long, as he essentially decides that he’s not taking her shit anymore. As she is well-known for her subversion of Secret Service rules and regulations, he then decides to tighten the ship, going toe-to-toe with Tess any time she tries to go against regulations.
This is exactly as insufferably wacky as it sounds. When Tess won’t sit on the correct side of a car (she has to be seated so both the agent and the driver can see her), Cage stands his ground, refusing to let the driver move until she caves. In retaliation, Tess will sometimes order her driver to take off without the Secret Service agents, forcing Doug to call the local highway patrol to try and track her down, which is clearly a great source of embarrassment for him.
Ultimately, it’s more the consequences of those actions that stick in the mind than anything that actually happens in Guarding Tess. The movie’s sole great, running gag is that Doug is constantly getting phone calls from the President, who very passive-aggressively chides him every time Tess calls to complain about him. First this starts off more faux-friendly, but when Doug pushes her into a place where she’s willing to waive her right to having Secret Service protection at all, a call from the President sends Doug into a panic, forcing him to gather his troops and keep unofficial watch on Tess until one day, she just decides to invite Doug inside and make peace.
This is the main problem I have with Guarding Tess. While it alludes to Tess being sort of an awful person underneath her public persona, the script can’t quite seem to decide whether or not she’s actually an awful person. Later sections of the film create the allusion that maybe she’s so cranky because she’s terrified of no longer being useful now that her husband is dead, and then there’s a whole brain tumor subplot that actually gets forgotten right as the third act kicks into gear. Yes, she has a brain tumor, but apparently she’s not going to die? No one really explains that one.
Instead, the movie relies on MacLaine to sell this schizophrenic character through sheer charm and wit. And she almost pulls it off. I mean, this is Shirley MacLaine we’re talking about. She’s one of those actresses that can bring dignity and warmth to even the dumbest of roles. She imbues Tess with all of those things, but even she can’t quite overcome a script that has absolutely no idea exactly where it wants to go. A fact made all the more evident by its third act, which tosses in a kidnapping plot pretty much out of nowhere.
I can’t emphasize enough exactly how stupid and cloying the end of this movie is. By this point, Doug and Tess have made their peace with one another, but now Doug is in hot water after Tess’ driver takes off with her, but not on another joyride. This time he’s part of a plot to kidnap the woman for a $15 million ransom, engineered by his sister and her husband. Characters we have never heard of, let alone seen ANYWHERE in this movie. All of the sudden, the movie shifts to Doug having to prove himself by investigating the kidnapping on his own, while the rest of the Secret Service belittles him for not being able to keep his eye on a little old woman.
Here’s the thing: normally when this happens, you’re supposed to feel really bad for the protagonist and really hate those nasty higher-up types that clearly don’t understand that Doug’s really a good guy. Except in this case, they’re right. Sure, maybe they’re a tad overly mean about it, but this guy just let one of America’s most important living figures get taken by an idiot chauffeur and his yokel family. He is an idiot, and he deserves to be chastised.
Still, if it weren’t for this sudden change in direction, we wouldn’t have gotten the sole worthwhile Cage moment anywhere in this idiotic 96 minute endeavor. In order to coerce a confession and the location of Tess out of the chauffeur (played by ubiquitous “weird guy” actor Austin Pendleton), he flips out exactly the way we want Nicolas Cage to flip out. He pulls a gun, and threatens to start shooting off the man’s toes unless he tells where she is. AND THEN HE DOES EXACTLY THAT.
Good. I’m glad we got one worthwhile moment out of this oppressively pleasant slog. But I am still blown away that a movie that seemed like such fertile ground for Cage-brand chicanery only managed one good moment out of the entire ordeal. The rest of the movie, Cage is either just kind of a dull, lifeless presence, periodically peppered with moments of panic. He turns Doug into a very bored-looking Nicolas Cage, and not much more.
Unfortunately, this is far from the end of this side of Nicolas Cage’s acting personality. While we’ve become super accustomed to Cage livening up even the dumbest, shittiest movies, the ’90s and 2000s are stuffed to the brim with movies where Cage seems totally out of his element, or at least utterly not invested in what’s going on. Guarding Tess is far from the worst example of this, but coming from where we’ve been, it’s a jarring shift. It makes Red Rock West look like Deadfall. I realize they can’t all be winners, but I’ll be honest when I say that I’m battening down the hatches for a rough ride in the near future. June, and the deluge of great Cage action movies can’t come soon enough.
- Apart from Pendleton, Guarding Tess is actually brimming with great character actors of the era, including James Rebhorn, Richard Griffiths, and Susan Bommaert. It also does next to nothing with any of them, though Rebhorn does get to continue his streak of being one of film’s greatest assholes.
- This is a question I may be asking a bunch from here on out, but really, who in Hollywood was looking at these low-key mainstream pictures they were about to produce, and saying “Hey, what about Nicolas Cage?” Like, what in Cage’s history says “Yeah, this guy can totally be the mild comic actor we need for this cranky-but-lovable old people comedy!” I will never understand how casting directors and producers think.
- Guarding Tess writer/director Hugh Wilson went on to write and direct the Brendan Fraser vehicle Blast from the Past, as well as the Dudley Do-Right live action movie starring, yes, Brendan Fraser. So I guess now I actually do know why this movie is so mediocre.
Next Week: It Could Happen to You