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‘Guarding Tess’

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 11, 1994


Hugh Wilson
Shirley MacLaine;
Nicolas Cage;
Austin Pendleton;
Edward Albert;
James Rebhorn;
Richard Griffiths;
Harry J. Lennix
mature language and mild violence

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"Guarding Tess" clearly has "Driving Miss Daisy" in mind, but half an hour into this mildly diverting comedy about the fractious relationship between feisty former First Lady Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine) and exasperated Secret Service agent Doug Chesnic (Nicolas Cage), several other possible titles spring to mind:

"The Buddy Guard."

"In the Line of Ire."

Instead of "Daisy's" racial divide, director and co-writer Hugh Wilson explores the generation gap that yawns between a widowed septuagenarian content to sit estate-bound in rural Ohio (played by rural Maryland) and a young agent who would prefer to be assigned anywhere else. Chesnic calls this "the worst assignment there is in the Secret Service," and it's not hard to see why: Tess beckons, he comes; Tess demands, he delivers; Tess pouts, he simmers; Tess escapes, he chases. In fact, Tess and Doug act more like scrapping siblings than boss and employee. Theirs is a battle of iron wills and won'ts.

Unfortunately, the film begins with this key relationship activated, almost as if "Guarding Tess" were a sequel to a previous film in which everything is explained. Some clues are given to suggest that Chesnic served the late President Carlisle before a White House heart attack, and thus represents to her both that hallowed past and some salving continuity. In fact, Tess is just lonely, bored and restless. With typical maudlin sentimentality, she says of a newly dedicated presidential library that it is "taking a fine old building and making it useful again."

For his part, Doug can't wait until this tour of dutifulness ends and he gets assigned to someone with a more lively public schedule. Tess, however, won't have any other agent serve her, and it's clear that her curmudgeonly behavior and rebellious actions mask genuine affection for Doug. Predictably, his coolness masks a reciprocal concern.

Most of "Guarding Tess" is mannered comedy, focused on the redoubtable MacLaine and the tensile Cage. All of the supporting characters -- notably tubby Richard Griffiths as Tess's nurse and mousy Austin Pendleton as her chauffeur -- are thinly drawn, but neither MacLaine nor Cage leaves much room for anyone to overact.

The president calls Tess "either a national treasure or a pain in the butt," and MacLaine plays her both ways. Despite her rebellious instinct -- she's always ditching the members of her security detail and testing their patience and skills -- Tess is also locked into a proud past now mummified on news videotapes or encased in those presidential library walls. Once in the limelight, she's now in the shadows, her power unplugged, and that's as painful as widowhood. MacLaine makes that pain palpable, if not entirely plausible.

As for the usually over-the-edgy Cage, his stoic, beleaguered Chesnic is all tight-lipped, monotone servility. Cage does get a chance to cut loose when the film takes a wrong turn at the end with a bizarre kidnapping plot, a bitter medical diagnosis and a tension-filled rescue, but he also draws on a quiet stubbornness familiar from "Raising Arizona" and "Moonstruck." Like the role itself, Cage is clearly in service here to a fabled but fading star, and he seldom slips on that second banana.

"Guarding Tess" is rated PG-13 for mature language and mild violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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