Cage's First Lady
On one level "Guarding Tess" is not that special a movie, it serves up the odd couple storyline of two people who don't get on but grow not only to respect each other but also a fondness for each other. It had been done prior to 1994 and has been done since and to be honest has been done better. But there is one thing which makes "Guarding Tess" more entertaining and it is a critical thing and that is the casting of our two main protagonists is perfect. Shirley MacLaine is wonderful as the icy former first lady whilst Nicolas Cage is brilliant as her put upon secret service agent who finds himself stuck protecting this national treasure that goes out of her way to make his life a misery. It's because of this, because there is good chemistry between Maclaine and Cage that "Guarding Tess" becomes far more that then sum of its parts.
Having just finished his three years protecting former first lady Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine - Steel Magnolias), Secret Service Agent Doug Chesnic (Nicolas Cage - Honeymoon in Vegas) is looking forward to getting away from the woman who whilst a national treasure is also a royal pain in the arse in private. But unfortunately for Doug, Tess has grown fond of him or at least use to his way of working and persuades her personal friend the current President to have Doug reassigned to her for another three years. Less than impressed Doug returns and becomes frustrated by the bum deal he has been dealt, but as the only one who can tolerate Tess's ways he is the best man for the task.
"Guarding Tess" is a two part movie and it is the first part which is where it is at its best and ironically it is the first part of the movie where it is the most unoriginal. The set up maybe about Secret Service Agent Doug Chesnic being forced to protect former first lady Tess Carlisle it is your basic chalk n cheese relationship. Doug is frustrated by the icy, awkward nature of Tess who seems to go out of her way to be a pain whilst Tess almost gets some form of sadistic pleasure from being difficult. And Tess will amusingly go to any length to make trouble including hassling the President with petty issues.
The set up of all of this is plenty of fun thanks to Nicolas Cage's comical frustrations as he is ordered to lead her protection for another few years. But this then paves way for some expected tenderness as Tess and Doug not only grow to respect each other but also grow fond of each other, not in the romantic sense but more of Chesnic knowing that Tess is a bitch but she's his bitch. It may all be very obvious and a little sentimental in the way this comes about as Tess realises that over the years Doug has always been there for her and her late husband but it is all very pleasant.
The trouble is that with these sorts of movies it then needs a subsequent storyline to bring some purpose and drama and unfortunately what they come up with not only feels over the top but also an after thought tagged on the end. This subsequent storyline does provide for more humour and more tenderness which rounds things of nicely but it is so forced compare to the first part that it feels weak.
But as I said at the beginning it is the brilliant casting of Shirley Maclaine and Nicolas Cage that makes "Guarding Tess" so much more than the summer of its parts. You get a sense that Maclaine in Tess Carlisle is part creating a character and part drawing on her own presence to make life hard with an icy look and a searching question. And in doing so it not only makes Tess believable but entertaining because she is formidable and someone you like despite being a bitch. And Maclaine works so well with Nicolas Cage to deliver some believable chemistry but more importantly Cage gets the right amount of frustration and anger to make Chesnic funny but not in a pantomime way. It's a good thing that Maclaine and Cage work well together because of the rest of the cast which includes Austin Pendleton, Richard Griffiths and David Graf border on being pantomime stooges, over playing the comedy of their characters.
What this all boils down to is that on one hand "Guarding Tess" is just another chalk n cheese movie about an odd couple who don't get on but grow to respect each other. But it is entertaining purely because Shirley Maclaine and Nicolas Cage are brilliantly cast and bring the comedy of the antagonistic friendship to life partly through the big things they do but also through the small things such a turn of words or a look.