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Saturday 11 March 2023

Guarding Tess (1994)

Director: Hugh Wilson
Writers: Hugh Wilson and P. J. Torokvei
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Shirley MacLaine, Austin Pendleton, Edward Albert, James Rebhorn and Richard Griffiths

Index: The First Thirty.

Deadfall taught me once again, not that I was in need of a reminder, that unrestrained Cage is wildly inconsistent and often acutely painful but Guarding Tess taught me once again that a Cage bristling against massive restraints that a plot imposes upon him is often impressive.

He’s Douglas Chesnic, a secret service agent but Guarding Tess is far from an action flick. It’s a light character-driven drama—except for the third act, when it forgets what it was doing to ratchet up the tension in what could be a CBS primetime show—with the two lead characters a new take on the odd couple.

That’s because the other one is Tess Carlisle, widow of a dead president, and she’s played by Shirley MacLaine. He’s done a professional job to protect her over the past three years, a job that he’s hated with a passion, and now plans to return to Washington to move into a more active duty. She’s not at all ready to let him go, which means that he’s sent right back again, because she has the current president, the VP under her husband, wrapped around her little finger. His periodic politely angry phone calls to Chesnic are the best thing about the movie.

Initially, the results are awkward, because it couldn’t be any other way. We expect to be on Chesnic’s side because he’s doing his very best in the line of duty but we also expect to be on Tess’s side, because she was FLOTUS and she’s played by Shirley MacLaine, who we’d root for if she was playing Satan incarnate.

However, she’s hardly sympathetic here, as she keeps nagging at his composure, treating him like a servant and imposing odd rules on the household, like never bringing a gun into her bedroom. His response to being returned for a fresh tour of duty is to do everything in accordance with the book out of a petty sense of spite, not that he wasn’t close to being that anal through sheer professionality but it is a deliberate shift. Thus we expect to be on both sides but actually turn out to be on neither.

But, as they gradually find ways to get along with each other, for no better reason than it’s what odd couples always do in movies about odd couples, they both start to mellow just a little and, in so doing, start to grow on us too.

The first act is decent but frustrating, as we wade through the budding power struggle. He refuses to let her chauffeur drive off until she sits on the other side of the car. She pouts and there’s a standoff. It’s childish but we kind of get the point of both sides and sit through all these minor power plays.

Sometimes they’re funny, like when she has that same chauffeur drive off while the car is being filled up at a gas station, leaving all the agents floundering around in her dust.

Sometimes they’re poignant, like when she goes to the opera in Columbus, but falls asleep in her box and Chesnic realises the audience are realising and taking surreptitious photos. If he sticks to the book, it isn’t his job to make her look good, but he’s a decent human being and he doesn’t want her to look bad in public, even if she drives him nuts, so he gently tries to jar her awake.

Of course, both these incidents become far more than funny or poignant, as they run on, but they’re strong moments that point out the way forward and they’re enough to keep us on board as we wait for the mellowing.

I liked Cage here, because he’s held firmly in check on two levels. On the first, his character is held firmly in check by the authority figures that he works for, and, on the second, he as an actor is held firmly in check by his director.

That must have felt rather unusual for Hugh Wilson, who co-wrote and directed, as he was far more used to madcap stories, not least two dominant titles in his filmography: the initial Police Academy movie, which he also co-wrote and directed, and WKRP in Cincinatti, a TV show he created, wrote, produced and directed. This is notably restrained in comparison, though it must have had an impact on him because one later hit for him was The First Wives Club.

Beyond Cage being better when, well, caged, I’m coming to enjoy him most either as a good man or a fool with good intentions. This time out, he’s clearly the former but with a hint of the latter, so it’s a win all around. Chesnic is a perfect role for him, even if he probably had a deep and abiding wish to add a prosthetic nose and a stupid accent.

Shirley MacLaine is good too, because Tess is a lonely old lady who misses the busy times in the spotlight but has too much decorum to actually address that with anyone. She finds a way, as a talented actress like her ought to do, to endow her character with a lot more depth than was there to begin with.

Propping up the two leads by providing the perfect amalgam of characterful support and keeping the hell out of the way are a string of reliable actors that we all know from a slew of other roles, even if we don’t always remember their names. There’s Richard Griffiths from Pie in the Sky and Harry Potter; David Graf from the Police Academy movies; Austin Pendleton from A Beautiful Mind; John Roselius from the This is Your Brain on Drugs PSA; James Rebhorn from Independence Day; even Harry Lennix from The Blacklist. They’re all excellent.

But this lives or dies on its script, and it has a habit of forgetting what it’s doing. It works best as a light comedy with underlying drama, which means that it’s decent during the first act and better during the second, but then, for some reason, it gets all serious on us during the third, as if it suddenly decided it wanted to be a TV movie, a thriller of the week. I wasn’t sold on that shift in the slightest. It’s done OK, I guess, but it really had no need to go there.

I’d have been happier if it had continued its steady movement from antagonism to mutual respect to something closer to friendship and, while that does underpin even the third act, it isn’t given the subtle focus it deserved. And so this is a decent but mostly forgettable picture that should have been a level above that.

From Cage’s perspective, it’s another solid step into the nice guy role after Honeymoon in Vegas and, in its way, Red Rock West, to prepare for the quintessential nice guy role in It Could Happen to You, which I’m now looking forward to even more than I was already.

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