You’re undoubtedly familiar with seeing Nicolas Cage just about everywhere, yet I don’t know how many of you remember this hilarious 1994 movie, Guarding Tess.
Set in the small, quiet town of Somerville in the heart of New England, the story revolves around the life of reserved Tess Carlisle, a tough former First Lady of the United States.
Now retired, Tess has an insufferable temper with a sharp wit and non-negotiable independence, despite her advanced age and the rigid security system surrounding her.
However, she remains a beloved figure among Americans, so the Secret Service takes great care to protect her under the command of Doug Chesnic, a young special agent.
Doug is a man of rigid discipline and inflexible rules, which has to deal daily with Tess’s often contradictory and impulsive temperament.
Although the lady seems to resent him, when the last day of three years service period arrives, she demands to his superiors that he stay on, messing up another job he cherished.
Unable to leave, the situation between them becomes especially tense, and they begin arguing even more frequently than before about every little aspect of security.
Tess can’t stand to see armed men in her house, for example, but of course, the agents can’t violate their orders; or again, she can’t bear what seat to occupy while they escort her in the car.
So on and on, after so many public and private outbursts, Tess and Doug seem to find an understanding when they get to know each other better, although their challenging personalities do not soften in the least.
However, everything changes forever when the lady’s life is in danger, kidnapped by mysterious strangers; while Doug seems to be the only one with a valid lead to find her.
Simple and effective old-fashioned comedy
Projecting an unconventional spirit in the 1994 cinematic landscape, Guarding Tess is a movie that aspires to tickle a peal of intimate, sly mood rather than to elicit endless laughter.
Leaving aside raunchy comedy and incessant crude language, we avoid any sexual situations or similar awkwardness, which are usually trite and predictable narrative resolutions.
Although there is no effervescent hilarity, every minute of this strange story imparts a sense of bliss to the viewer.
This is made possible by humor that, while not always biting and insightful, achieves a solid emotional depth greater than just a vulgar and fleeting quip.
Hugh Wilson writes and directs with a solid seriousness, preferring quiet composure to an accelerated pace or a succession of overwhelming emotions into which the film’s atmosphere plunges with a slow and intriguing pace.
This is because the real focus is the ups and downs of friendship and hatred that alternate between the characters played by Shirley MacLaine and Nicolas Cage.
Being a famous retired widow, the former has an almost unlimited amount of time, at times too extensive to spend in solitude, and has a family that seems to consider her only when necessary.
On the other hand, the young intelligence agent would like to progress in his professional field, stuck in the dead-end street of bodyguard. Still, the lady’s lifestyle will make him reflect on his overly serious existence, depriving him of joy and relaxation.
This relationship thankfully avoids dull sentimentality or tearful moments, instead living by how each of the two characters tries to win in stubbornness and obstinacy over the other.
In short, it’s a straightforward old-style comedy, not original in any way, but still a concept that, in the right hands, always works effectively.
Face-to-face between two acting generations
With narratives in which the leading roles are played by an opposite-sex couple, it is often difficult to avoid a plot progression following the canons of the romance genre.
Fortunately, the emphasis here is primarily on the charismatic appeal of the main actors, famous icons for two different generations of movie lovers.
Upon first encountering the memorable figure of the older woman played by Shirley MacLaine, she may appear peaceful and polite, although this perception dissipates within seconds as soon as she begins to speak.
Once she hits the ground running, she shows no hesitation in throwing scorching verbal barbs at anyone who crosses her path, no matter whether it is a friend or longtime employee, or a complete stranger.
Nevertheless, the true essence of his character lies in what she keeps silent rather than what she says.
A tangible example of his loneliness is in the stupidity and absence of his son, appearing only briefly in one scene to solicit business help and subsequently disappearing.
So Nicolas Cage‘s character is like a surrogate child, and, as is the case in all family relationships, lively contrasts often arise from solid passion.
Especially since, as we quickly see, neither Doug nor Tess tolerates anyone who contradicts them and they always stubbornly stand their own positions.
Cage delivers a more measured acting than his usual performances, a difference that is especially noticeable to anyone familiar with his best-known and most successful films, where the actor is always resounding and sparkling.
Finally, I also want to mention Austin Pendleton, here as the chauffeur and trusted friend of the widowed former first lady who, however, we discover that it is not always wise to blindly rely on his loyalty as the plot progresses.