Guarding Tess: MacLaine’s Star Vehicle, with Nicolas Cage

Though she has not given a decent performance in years (probably since 1990’s Postcards from the Edge), Shirley MacLaine should be commended for sheer survival.

Alongside with Anne Bancroft, who also began her career in the 1950s, MacLaine may be the only actress of her generation who has had a sustained acting career.

Regretfully, in the same way that Angie is first and foremost a star vehicle for Geena Davis, Guarding Tess is meant to be the same for Shirley MacLaine. And like Angie, the narrative is tired and familiar; the movie should have been called Driving Miss Tess, as the central idea is stolen from Driving Miss Daisy.

Sadly, aging actresses don’t have as wider choice of roles as younger performers. But Guarding Tess is so schematic, that there’s not much for the audience to do but follow the predictable turning points in the changing relationship between a cantankerous former first lady (MacLaine) and her resentful body guard (Nicolas Cage), who feels he’s degraded by the experience.

The movie throws together two characters that could not have been more different and shows us how they gradually develop mutual respect and even affection for each other. The plot’s machination is based on the idea that people’s public images might differ from their real identities. Indeed, on the surface, Tess is a revered First Lady, perceived as a national treasure, but behind closed doors, she is crotchety, bitter, and even boozy. Her philosophy is that if she is going to suffer, so are the other six agents assigned to what she describes as her “detail from hell.”

Judging by last year’s movies, you might get the impression that bodyguards and Secret Service agents are members of the hottest profession in the country. As a screen character, Cage’s Doug Chesnic is no Kevin Costner (The Bodyguard) or Clint Eastwood (In the Line of Fire), but the nature of his work is such that there’s no drama to it unless he gets outdoors. Thus, to make its tedious narrative more exciting, Guarding Tess goes out of its way to shift the action outdoors, be it a picnic that Tess insists on having in bad weather, or some silly business of Tess being kidnapped.

Both Angie and Guarding Tess are meant to be uplifting, feel-good movies, but I actually got depressed. The screen heroines of these movies belong to Hollywood of yesteryear, not to the l990s. And the bottom line is that both Geena Davis and Shirley MacLaine deserve much better star vehicles.