The movie is a merry skirmish with great underlying warmth.
"Guarding Tess" is an exuberant romp for Shirley MacLaine. She brings superb comic timing to the role of a president's widow who battles the head of her secret service detail. Given a good script and a director who knows the value of restraint, she expresses the whole range of her emotions with her eyes and mastery of the pause. With MacLaine, the fun always lies right there in the silence she holds before responding to her adversary. Anticipating an oncoming barb, she fields it with the flick of an eyebrow and sends it back soaked in vinegar.
For three years Tess has been the charge of Doug Chesnic (Nicolas Cage), a secret service man who is winding up this unenviable tour of duty as the movie begins. Joyful in reprieve, he fantasizes about glamorous assignments only to be told by the incumbent president that Tess wants him back for another term. "I can't do three more years there, I can't do three more minutes there," he groans. We quickly learn why.
As lead agent for the team that hangs out in the kitchen, he plays by Tess's arbitrary rules. This time around, Doug announces, he will call the shots. In the quick opening salvo of the new game, they battle over her right to ride without a seatbelt, a slim sight gag that is very funny in the hands of Cage and MacLaine.
From then on, the movie is a merry skirmish with great underlying warmth. The chemistry between the flinty, lonely Tess and Doug, her loyal opposition, makes you root for both of them. All the principals, even the bumblers from Washington, are decent sorts, and the hapless guys in the kitchen are benign, even kindly.
Writer/Director Hugh Wilson holds a steady hand, avoiding the cute or obvious traps that pepper such material. His one slip is a minor medical melodrama that adds nothing to the plot. He sketches quite gently the isolation bestowed by fame and then showers us with the sparks of a spunky spirit encapsulated in the protective bubble of protocol. Alternately sad and outrageous, Tess is surrounded by seven men who attend her in affectionate annoyance as she leads them to the opera, the golf course and a poignant picnic by a lake.
Just as we begin to wonder how long we will loll in the warmth of this very funny combat, Wilson throws us a curve in the form of a suddenly serious plot twist that is confusing in a movie built on the preposterous, but it does come just as something new is needed and allows Cage and MacLaine to wrap up their engaging duet with style. If the finale is awash in corn, it's welcome corn. Shirley Maclaine's legendary versatility infuses her spirit and shines as the lively intelligence of a performer who has wrapped her life experience in perfect timing.
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 485
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