Nicolas Cage defies convention. He burst onto the scene with guns blazing, playing large cartoonish characters while working with auteurs and family, taking huge risks and championing German Expressionism. His painting in ZANDALEE, his monologues in MOONSTRUCK, his… everything in DEADFALL. And contrary to popular belief he’s always been a hard-working prolific actor. People think he takes everything that comes across his desk these days to pay his absurd personal expenses and while that may be true he’s always seemed to be cranking out three or four movies a year since he started. He’ll wrap one film and dart across the globe to start another the next day. He loves what he does, and he does it for that love. It’s a gift for him to be able to make a living at it and he shares that gift with us.
After such auspicious beginnings, however, it looks like he tried to find a sustainable “gig economy” routine in the early- to mid-90s. He started taking roles that didn’t require the large facial acrobatics of German Expressionism to play to the cheap seats. He was a leading man that could lead with character, a strong script, and his own name rather than elaborate stunts. Specifically, in 1994, after working with David Lynch, Alan Parker, and the Coen Brothers, he would star in three understated dramedies that pushed no envelopes, threatened no securities, and, perhaps most timely, generated no memes. That said, they’re all fine films, and I will be exploring each over the course of this column. The first of these is 1994’s GUARDING TESS.
As I said in my opening entry, some films were chosen to be reviewed on particular weeks that correspond to how Cage’s career intersected my life, and this is one of those moments. This article should have been posted on the 19th, would have represented the ending of the week that began with Valentine’s Day, but winter storms and unprecedented freezing temperatures down here in Texas kind of loused that whole week up for me. However, per my original intent, GUARDING TESS marks the first film that I went to see in the theater on a date.
In March of 1994 I was fifteen years old, and I had a crush on a classmate named Odessa. I thought she was just about the coolest girl around, and I made any excuse to spend time with her. I did 10ks supporting the March of Dimes just to walk beside her for a while, and I was quick to give her my flannel anytime she was cold. At this time, I was a full-blown Nicolas Cage fan and when I saw the previews for the lighthearted comedy I thought it might be prime date material. I asked Odessa if she’d like to see the film with me and to my surprise she agreed. While trying to work out the logistics of the date, we ended up asking a mutual friend who was slightly older than us and driving by that time to chauffeur us on the excursion. So my “date” had a third wheel, which added to the awkward dynamic. Nothing steamy occurred so I never sent this detail into the Penthouse Forum; Odessa was being nice and accompanied me to the film as a friend.
That said, I haven’t seen the movie in over twenty years. I remembered precisely one detail about the whole film, which my wife laughed at and said “Cause you were necking the whole time!” I chuckled. Sadly, no. I remembered that I liked it but it clearly wasn’t memorable. I rented it from Amazon Prime and watched it yesterday, in two sittings to accommodate my responsibilities. Let’s check out the trailer:
What looks like a lighthearted romp largely is, and the film is thoroughly enjoyable. Cage and MacLaine spar with exuberant aplomb, and the supporting cast is dynamite. It’s filled with lesser-known character actors that you’ve seen in that one thing, and it’s a joy to track them down and solve those little mysteries.
“Isn’t that the energy scientist from NAKED GUN 2 ½: THE SMELL OF FEAR?”
“Wasn’t that guy in THE MUPPET MOVIE?”
“Is that Tackleberry from THE POLICE ACADEMY movies?”
MacLaine’s Tess Carlisle is a firecracker; whip smart, sharp, and incisive. Cage’s Doug Chesnic is very buttoned-up, however, and insists on performing his duties with dispassionate professionalism and by the proverbial book. We learn over the course of the film, as the characters themselves do, that Chesnic and Carlisle have found in one another kindred spirits, worthy adversaries, and mirror images. Both are monarchs in their respective small kingdoms, though their authority is frequently challenged by the other. It seems neither has a choice, however, as the larger world hasn’t a place for either of them aside from their current lordship. They learn to enjoy the skirmishes, to trade victories then toast one another. It’s a rare dynamic but one that the filmmakers have communicated thoroughly.
The third-act provides some action and suspense, which although handled well brings up questions about who this film is intended for. I have to admit, it’s not the fifteen-year-old couple’s date movie I’d hoped it would be, and it’s not much of a Nicolas Cage movie, either. So what is it? Who is it for? Director and co-writer Hugh Wilson (who also voices the President) has made a perfectly reasonable film with accomplished actors and a great relationship at its center but it doesn’t answer any grand social questions and it doesn’t champion any universal truth. It draws comparisons to DRIVING MISS DAISY but that film addressed color-lines and classism. GUARDING TESS just seems to want to make us laugh and then see Nic Cage shoot someone’s toe off, exhume a barely living body, and introduce us to Harry Lennix two decades before “The Blacklist” or MAN OF STEEL, and that’s it. It’s not a movie for young people or even old people. It’s a movie for people, which I suppose is altruistic in its own way, but with a medium like film it seems prudent to personalize the product for hungry demographics.
Overall, GUARDING TESS is a film that is very funny and tender, and there’s a lot to like in this largely unsung entry in the Cage pantheon. I don’t know that it leverages Cage’s more unique talents but it proves that he’s a perfectly capable actor, not limited to stunt casting or having to constantly “go full Cage.” His comedic timing and facial mechanics are great, and he uses body language often in this film to better utility than in some of his other, more celebrated works. Douglas Chesnic feels real, whole, and complete in a way that contrasts the many characters that Cage chooses that seem to be missing something vital within them.
Honorable mention to a scene earlier in the film: after dejectedly returning to his assignment in Ohio (played by Maryland in this film), Chesnic is beckoned upstairs by Carlisle but before he can make it up there he is directed to breaking chaos on the television by his Secret Service colleagues. Civil unrest has exploded into acts of violence in Agua Dulce during a Presidential visit, and the men clamor around the television to see the agents in action. They’re analyzing maneuvers and pointmen, cawing in awe at the men in positions they feel should be theirs. It’s akin to watching sports fans bellow at the television while their favorite athletes make the big play, and it’s such a short, fleeting scene that informs the larger psychology of the characters within the film. I was very impressed with its creation and inclusion, a clever “show don’t tell” moment that has been lost in film over the past few decades.
Thank you for your patience this week as I thaw out and I’ll be posting the next episode tomorrow to get back on track. Until then, stay safe and stay sane.
-McEric, aka Eric McClanahan-