Guarding Tess

1994, Movie, PG-13, 98 mins


GUARDING TESS could be described as a small movie: except for one scene, it never leaves the borders of Ohio, and it's essentially a two-character picture. In its small way, however, it succeeds, thanks to director Hugh Wilson's light touch and the chemistry between leads Shirley MacLaine and Nicolas Cage.

Secret Service agent Doug Chesnic (Cage) is glad to be rid of his assignment of three years--guarding former First Lady Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine), an overbearing, patronizing widow whose endearing public persona has somehow made her a national treasure. On arriving in Washington to accept a new posting, however, Doug finds that Tess has asked the President (her husband's former veep) to extend Doug's tour of duty by another three years. Though furious, the dutiful agent returns to Tess's Ohio home, where he informs her that he intends to run things by the book from now on. The book, however, belongs to Tess, and she continues to employ her cadre of secret service agents to fetch golf balls and check prices at the local grocery store. At one point Doug tells Tess off, drawing an angry phone call from the President, who instructs him to let the woman have her way. Tess's behavior becomes increasingly erratic, though; and, after a volcanic argument with Doug, she throws the entire secret service detail out of her house. Only after a second call from the President does Doug make peace with Tess, in spite of her bizarre behavior.

Tess, it turns out, is suffering from an inoperable brain tumor, which accounts for her eccentricities. She keeps her illness from her guardians, allowing them to stand puzzled in the background as she suddenly announces her intention to travel to the lake for an impromptu picnic. On this trip, she and her driver, Earl, are abducted; the car is found hours later with the driver unconscious and a ransom note in the glove compartment demanding $15 million. Doug soon begins to suspect Earl of foul play. After shooting off one of the man's toes in his hospital bed, he learns that Tess is being held by Earl's sister at a nearby farmhouse. Doug and his team locate Tess and rescue her, earning the respect of both the government and (finally) the former First Lady herself.

While not liable to change anybody's life, GUARDING TESS is competently executed and entertaining, chiefly due to the first-rate performances of stars Cage and MacLaine. MacLaine is bitchy and likeable at the same time, while Cage (who has become one of the strongest actors in Hollywood) is outstanding as the exasperated secret service agent, always maintaining an air of control even when all control has been lost. Credit, too, goes to the writing and directing of Hugh Wilson (who also wrote and directed the first POLICE ACADEMY film, as well as the underrated RUSTLER'S RHAPSODY); all of his characters are three-dimensional and even his goofiest scenes never seem contrived. Wilson also successfully weaves together Michael Convertino's prim little score with the bare seclusion of the Ohio landscape to create a sense of happy, if boring, isolation--just the kind of place a retired widow would cherish and a glory-seeking young agent would loathe. (Violence, profanity.) leave a comment

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