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Guarding Tess caught between drama, comedy

Guarding Tess

Directed By Hugh Wilson.

Written By Hugh Wilson and Peter Torokvei.

Starring Shirley MacLaine, Nicholas Cage.

Loews Cheri.

By Christopher Chiu

It's hard to explain just what this movie is. It's advertised as a comedy. Nearly two-thirds of the movie is a drama with a few comical scenes, and it ends with a mini-mystery. As you might expect, Guarding Tess is a film with a serious identity crisis. And that isn't even the worst of its problems.

Let's begin with the plot. For anyone who has seen Driving Miss Daisy, the storyline will sound awfully familiar. Shirley MacLaine plays Mrs. Tess Carlisle, a former First Lady who is strong willed, bilious, and quite eccentric. She goes golfing in 38 degree weather and wears hair pieces dyed grey. Her longtime bodyguard is Douglas Chesnic (Nicholas Cage), the best Secret Service agent in the business, who is itching for a more active post: anywhere far, far away from Mrs. Carlisle. Most of the movie concentrates on the tension between them, and it is obvious that the movie's creators meant to present a witty, humorous study of social interactions between two stubborn individuals.

Unfortunately, this vision was poorly translated. The problems begin with the casting. Cage is a one-dimensional complainer for most of the movie, which is a bit surprising since he has had experience in comedy (Honeymoon In Vegas). He acts if he doesn't have a funny bone in his body, despite the many small comedic scenes strewn throughout the film. Cage can't carry the load as a complainer either, and even during the many fights his character has with Tess he doesn't convey much emotion. He tries at times to act like Clint Eastwood, but only Eastwood's no-smile policy is evident. You'd think Cage was being fined a dollar for every grin.

While Cage's character seems one-dimensional, however, it isn't half the disaster that Tess Carlisle is. Shirley MacLaine is woefully inadequate as the crusty leading lady. She tries to portray a character that is much older than she is, and it shows. She seems just a bit too active, a bit too quick-witted, even a bit too swift to recover from her binges of whiskey drinking (her character is given to liquor). MacLaine fits badly into Mrs. Carlisle's shoes.

Despite the disasters in characterization, there are a few interesting plot developments halfway into the movie. At one point, Mrs. Carlisle sends everyone out of her sedan, then takes off down the road all by herself in a desperate bid for freedom. Doug and his buddies don't have the manpower to search for her, so they call up the sheriff's office and are laughed at. If the writers were a more imaginative, they might have expanded on this little escapade into an exciting chase across the country: a deranged elderly woman being pursued by overweight state troopers and some hapless Secret Service men. But no, after only ten minutes and no chase scenes, Tess is led back into her mansion under heavy guard. With this sort of writing, it's surprising that the movie commands much attention at all.

That brings us to yet another shortcoming in the movie. A comedy is supposed to be funny - this film isn't. Oh yes, there is a series of amusing dialogues between Doug and the President (he acts like Bush, only even more dogmatic and woolly), but the joke starts to grate when it is repeated too many times. Beyond that, the pickings are slim to none, and the situation gets worse during the final third of the movie. Apparently, whoever created the film realized it wasn't much of a comedy, and inserted a convoluted kidnapping/escape plot that takes up the last 40 minutes or so; it is so fast-paced and so poorly explained that even Sherlock Holmes might have problems figuring it out.

In addition to slim pickings and poor explanations, the background of the film, such as the supporting actors and the cinematography, are very weak as well. The three dozen actors other than Cage and MacLaine can't seem to fit a decent line in edgewise. The film itself is shot in angles that never seem to convey intensity, especially during the debates between Tess and Doug. You almost want to ask the cameramen if they know how to use a close-up shot.

In the final analysis, then, the movie is not much of a comedy, not really a mystery, and not much of a film, period. Guarding Tess is not as much of an outright disaster as it is a disappointment. It simply tries too hP>ard to be too many things. It tries to be a social commentary, a la Driving Miss Daisy. It tries to be a comic film. It tries to include suspense. It tries to be everything. And what does it end up with? Precisely nothing.