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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Tess' Ends Up in Guarded Condition

March 11, 1994|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Unlike the often troublesome academic subject, nothing is more welcome or elusive in pictures than Hollywood's version of chemistry, the sparks two actors set off when they mix on screen. Sometimes, too, the most unlikely combinations prove effective, and so it is with Shirley MacLaine and Nicolas Cage in "Guarding Tess."

Though they've never acted together and most likely never even met before this pairing, these disparate performers find common ground in this delicately funny chamber comedy about the war of nerves that develops between a formidable former First Lady and the dissatisfied Secret Service agent assigned to protect and serve.

But aside from demonstrating how far a pleasing acting mixture can take you, "Guarding Tess" also shows its limitations. Though set up beautifully, "Tess" has difficulty delivering on its promise, taking an unexpected and unsatisfactory turn that undercuts rather than emphasizes all the good things that have come before.

And as good as its performances are, "Tess" also benefits from the unmistakable stamp of Hugh Wilson, whose playful sensibility created television's "WKRP in Cincinnati," "Frank's Place" and "The Famous Teddy Z." In addition to co-writing (with Peter Torokvei) and directing, Wilson plays a crucial voice-only role that helps set "Tess' " comic tone.

Tess Carlisle (MacLaine) is the widow of a President, a take-no-guff figure ("Don't Mess With Tess" reads a Time magazine cover) who is much beloved by the great American public. But guarding this termagant, Doug Chesnic (Cage) tells his boss, is without doubt "the worst assignment there is in the Secret Service."

Doug feels free to express these thoughts because after three years of living in deeply tedious Ohio and being the agent in charge of Tess' detail, he thinks he's on the verge of another, more cutting-edge assignment.

Then comes a phone call from the current President, a Carlisle protege (done in great unctuous/enthusiastic style by Wilson himself) who says that Tess has requested another tour for her favorite agent and that he as Chief Executive would consider it a personal favor if Doug agreed to return.

For it turns out that this tough, formidable woman enjoys nothing better than engaging in wars of words with the strictly-by-the-book Agent Chesnic. Their always polite, always deadly verbal duels are invariably engaging, and though the President of course exaggerates when he suggests "maybe you two have some kind of sicko thing going on," their acerbic, ironic battles inevitably binds them into a "Driving Miss Daisy"-type relationship.

Though his work is problematic at times, there is perhaps no actor of his generation who does better in ridiculous situations ("Moonstruck," "Honeymoon in Vegas") than Cage. Neither he nor the equally adept MacLaine forces or flaunts their characterizations; rather they underplay their parts as much as the situation allows, and though neither breaks any new ground, they succeed in bringing "Tess' " light-on-its-feet humor to life.

After facing off in a number of whimsical situations (a mid-winter golf game, comic trips to the opera and the supermarket), Tess and Doug begin to bring other colors to their interaction, and for a brief while it seems as if this film will be able to gracefully segue to a more serious emotional level.

Instead, "Guarding Tess" takes a sharp hairpin turn, as if Miss Daisy's house were suddenly burned to the ground by a vengeful pack of Klansmen, a plot twist out of character with what's gone before and one that seems to have come from a totally different movie.

While it's understandable that it was thought that "Tess" needed something more, that it couldn't go on merely being clever and fragile, this solution goes too far in the opposite direction. It turns "Guarding Tess" into a movie Tess herself would have seen through, and that is not a good sign.

'Guarding Tess'

Shirley MacLaine: Tess Carlisle

Nicolas Cage: Doug Chesnic

Austin Pendleton: Earl

Edward Albert: Barry Carlisle

James Rebhorn: Howard Shaeffer

Richard Griffiths: Frederick

A Channel production, released by TriStar Pictures. Director Hugh Wilson. Producers Ned Tanen, Nancy Graham Tanen. Screenplay Hugh Wilson & Peter Torokvei. Cinematographer Brian J. Reynolds. Editor Sidney Levin. Costumes Ann Roth, Sue Gandy. Music Michael Covertino. Production design Peter Larkin. Art director Charley Beal. Set decorator Leslie Rollins. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG-13 for language. Times guidelines: It features leading characters in jeopardy situations. * In general release throughout Southern California.

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