GUARDING TESS ***. Directed by Hugh Wilson. Written by Wilson & Peter Torokvei. Cinematography, Brian J. Reynolds. Production design, Peter Larkin. Editing, Sidney Levin. Music, Michael Convertino. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Shirley MacLaine,et al. A Tristar release. 98 min. Rated PG-13.
Not a great film but a good one. It starts well, maintains its interest and pace throughout, is nicely produced, makes good use of classical music, and above all has stellar performances by its principals. Nicolas Cage shows once more his versatility. So does Shirley MacLaine who comes through more like an actress than a star -- a good thing.
Doug Chesnic (Cage) is a Secret Service man, the Special Agent in Charge of protecting Tess Carlisle (MacLaine), a widowed ex-First Lady now retired in the Ohio countryside. Doug feels demeaned, He could be traveling on Air Force One and protecting the First Family from real dangers instead of bringing Tess her breakfast and newspaper. He loathes his deadly dull assignment, and is supremely irritated by the mercurial Mrs. Carlisle, a royal pain, a compendium of idiosyncrasies, caprices and impassively authoritarian treatment of her agents and household retinue. Doug, whose presence she secretly likes, is given more picky duties than anyone else, while the lady constantly taunts him and tries his patience. She also tipples a bit. The agent and Her Majesty are always engaged in verbal fencing.
At the end of a three-year stint that feels like a jail term, Doug is looking forward to his liberation, but instead gets stuck with another tour of duty by order of the current President, whom Mrs. Carlisle has called.
The battle of wits now becomes an unequal battle of wills. While punctilious Doug goes strictly by the book -- he is the type who will wear a safety belt in a parked car-- Mrs. Carlisle indulges in more whims, even escapades. But just as the situation seems to become terminally unbearable for Doug, a little series of events slowly modify the relationship and a new warmth is introduced, a kind of unspoken friendship. For Doug, Mrs. Carlisle becomes Tess -- even if no one calls her that -- as he begins to understand and appreciate the real Tess, with her loneliness, problems, spunk and wit.
The script handles those changes with humor and sentiment and through clever accretions of small touches and amusing episodes. Yes, we are manipulated but not in forced fashion. In one of the scenes that build sympathy for Tess , her opportunistic son visits, goes on at length about a real-estate scheme. She listens quietly. He asks her to lend her name as a patron. Her reply is a curt "No." "What?" says the dumbfounded man. "I said no." That's it. Exit the son.
In another, silent and touching scene, Tess watches videos of her late husband's Presidency. He had died in office, and on the images of the funeral services she spots Doug crying. It does something to her, and to us.
In Part III, the movie increases its pace, undergoes a major change that's ludicrously melodramatic and artificial. This still holds your attention but betrays the lace work of relations and dialogues that gave the earlier sections quality and originality. The film was much more powerful when it dealt with skirmishes, small scale actions/reactions or hesitant intimacy.
Mercifully, the silly wrap-up does not sink the movie or the acting. Cage, a player who often specializes in going over the top, gives here a quiet, tightly controlled performance, whether he is seething inside or beginning to like Tess. As for MacLaine, it is wonderful to see how her private New Age quirks are replaced on the screen by old age, how the happy hooker of "Irma La Douce" has been transformed, first into an impossibly bitchy, then a moving grande dame. Why do the showbiz people keep saying that there are no roles for actresses over 45 ?
[ Published April 1, 1994. Copyright Edwin Jahiel, 1994, 1995]