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Guarding Tess (1994)

14 Mar

Emasculated Cage throws a chair

Before watching Guarding Tess we believed that a Nicolas Cage film couldn’t be boring*, but Guarding Tess feels as though it was shot on a succession of rainy Sunday afternoons, with a cast listlessly doing their homework the day before it’s due in…. It feels as though it was written by a white-collar civil servant as he died stuck in an lift, in blood, on the walls. Out of respect they filmed it. To capture the feeling of Guarding Tess without having to watch it, we at ‘Cage Wisdom’ advise you to press play on the video link below and feel the wave of melancholy wash over you as you read the following…

As immediately discernible from the dvd box, in which a suited Cage stands serious behind a wry and ironical looking older stateswoman, Guarding Tess follows some days in the life of secret service agent Doug Chesnic (Cage) in his job of guarding former First Lady of the U.S. of A. Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine). Before we sat down to watch Guarding Tess, we made a few predictions for this “comedy beyond the call of duty”:

    1. There will be a scene where Cage has to hold Tess’s handbag in a public place, to emasculating effect.
    2. Tess will make innuendos not befitting a woman of her age.
    3. There will be a shopping sequence, to emasculating effect.
    4. They will walk dogs, and people shall trip over leads.
    5. Tess will accidentally hit Doug in the balls with a hand-bag.
    6.There will be a serious bit at the end where she actually gets kidnapped by terrorists.
    And most importantly…
    8. She’ll teach him how to let down his crew-cut and have a good time.

In the event of the film, only 3, 6 and 8 turned out to be true… although to call what transpired the “good time” anticipated by the overly-optimistic point 8, would be to guild a very boring lilly.

It is a very boring film. At one point we see a two second close-up of a document printing, and the script has the unfortunate habit of having Cage repeat exactly what’s been said in the previous scene to a different character, perhaps to give the audience a chance to reflect on the good times they’ve had. We cut from a comedy golf scene, shot on some desolate windswept moor, to Cage in a cafe aggressively repeating the dialogue to a cornered bystander:  ‘And then I said – I’m not getting your goddamn ball!’,  ‘Uh-huh’ replies the extra resignedly, as they help themselves to another coffee.

The Face of the Audience

Guarding Tess is the American equivalent of the British heritage film, where tiny dramas of social impropriety nudge the narrative forward like a kindly but quietly insistent teacher softly pushing a reticient young actor onto stage. At 25 minutes into the film’s running time the most dramatic incident had been Nic’s ill-judged decapitation of a flower. I employ the word ‘decapitation’ to lend the moment the excitement worthy of it. You see, Nic takes a rose – a rose, that most beautiful of flowers, carrying with it the Heavenly scene of Romeo and Juliet and the musk of those historical houses of York and Lancaster – and audaciously removes its head – that most essential part of the rose – and has the audacity, the waggish audacity, to place it within his own lapel, in obscene defiance of the fact that the rose’s owner – former First Lady no less and furthermore his employer – did not (absolutely, unequivocably not) instruct him to do so. Oh how we laugh at this mad comedy of errors while silently assenting that the rose should have been left in its place. When later in the film Nic woke the ex-First Lady of the U. S. of A. while she indulged her God-given right to a snooze at the opera (but oh how funny of her; how perfectly old-lady-like) I was so appalled I vomited all over my eiderdown.


Guarding Tess continued at this pace to a degree that was almost aggressively boring, as though it were a maiden-aunt or bearded pedagogue chastising us for wanting to play our sexy violent computer games and not being content with our cup-and-ball instead.*

I work in insurance and in my spare time compose hundred-page excel spreadsheets of the words most commonly appearing on ceefax and yet my life is still more exciting that Guarding Tess. It doesn’t even have the doily-dress delights of a proper heritage film where you get to watch Helena-Bonham Carter standing next to furnishings – everyone wears grey, has grey skin and lives in a kind of fortified castle, where esteemed and respected British actors are forced to make sandwiches and provide unfunny buffoonish diversions.

Richard Griffiths, Yes, Richard Griffiths himself sits glumly to one side in the kitchen, the “hub” of the Guarding Tess action, trying not to look the camera in the eye while an under-appreciated chef cooks constant broth for no-one. While it might seem unfair to famous and lauded actor Richard Griffiths to mention that he was in the film Guarding Tess, I do so because people have got into the habit recently of pinning all bad film choices on Nicolas Cage’s lapel. Sure, Cage is in bad films. But you know who else is in bad films? Richard Griffiths. Tom Hanks is also in bad films. Tom ‘the ham’ Hanks was in a film called The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), rivaling any of Cage’s output for hokyness – and yet it’s Cage who must be martyred for the cinematic sins of all actors. I’m not saying Nicolas Cage is Jesus, that’s for other people to say

Cage does what he can with the wet sack of Sunday afternoons he’s given. For most of the film his acting is muffled, as if he’s in a library, waiting for the Queen to arrive – but sometimes it all gets too much and he just has to shout out a line with erratic ferocity. This culminates in a bizarre scene in which Cage pre-cogs his performance in Bad Lieutenant by 15 years, and shoots the toes off a chauffeur. ‘Where’s the first lady? Where is she?!’ Doug Chesnic demands, as the chauffeur lies in hospital, gun pressed to his little toe. Another Secret Special Agent looks on with faint disgust, as if Cage is a tolerated school friend, too enthusiastic about pulling the legs off a spider.

But for Doug Chesnic this is a victorious moment. Tess always made him leave his gun outside the door when he came knocking, but now the proud gun has been proved right all along. If Chesnic did not have the maverick sensibilities needed to torture a chauffeur as he lies in a hospital bed, Tess could not be victoriously rescued from the hillbilly’s hidey-hole where she’s been stowed away. And if Chesnic couldn’t roll up his shirtsleeves, grab a spade and start manfully digging the former first lady out of a hole, he would be doomed to a life of emasculated chair-breaking (and probably bicycle-wheeling too).

Thank God for the gun, as Cage proves once again that he’s no-one’s fancy man. Grab your clapping-hand hats everyone, it’s going to be all-right.

Such a thing as I could never imagine in my most lucid daydreams


* I gently remind the audience at this juncture that Adam was absent while I was reviewing The Boy in Blue.

*At this juncture I am obliged to note that Jay much prefers a cup-and-ball to sexy violent computer games.