There’s a little gem of an idea in “Guarding Tess.” The premise has a young, ambitious Secret Service agent stuck in the thankless job of protecting the widow of a U.S. president. Neither truly likes the situation but they like one another, despite constant bickering and endless infractions of protocol.
Aided and abetted by two charismatic performers and an underlying sweetness, the film is indeed likable. But director Hugh Wilson, who co-wrote the script with Peter Torokvei, just skims the surface of potentially rich territory. Comedy, pathos and thrills alternately collide, creating problems in both pacing and developing a consistent tone. Ultimately, its thinness works against it and will account for only modest theatrical returns.
Story opens with Doug Chesnic (Nicolas Cage) bidding adieu to his charge of three years, presidential widow Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine). He returns to D.C. to take on a new assignment after the usual discreet and diplomatic debriefing session. But when told Carlisle has personally asked the president to charge him with another tour at her Ohio home, he breaks, confiding that it’s the sector’s worst assignment.
But if it has to be, he steels himself with the resolve to get the upper hand with the uppity former first lady. He lays down new ground rules as set out in the service handbook. Tess simply nods.
Doug’s triumph lasts about two hours. While chowing down at a local diner, he crows to the other agents about his new rules. But moments later, when he gets a phone call from the president, Doug’s expression tells all — he is out of his depth when tangling with Tess.
The battle of wills provides “Guarding Tess” with its most amusing moments. MacLaine applies her prickliest persona and Cage embodies the ramrod, by-the-books agent. A prisoner of state and celebrity, her means of expression is defiance, whether it be sitting on the wrong side of a limo or bringing the local supermarket to its heels on a grocery outing.
The problem is that the story develops in the most uninteresting manner. It’s not about power and perception as outlined in “Being There” (and whose echoes are felt with MacLaine’s presence), and it barely touches the unsettling nature of what reveals itself as essentially a mother-son relationship. Rather, it wanders into the preposterous, shifting and stripping gears when Tess is kidnapped and Doug and his men have to dig her up or wear the mantle of shame. You can be assured the conclusion yields a bumper crop of corn played out to a vapid, florid score.
MacLaine’s not asked to do much more than the shrill, iron-willed matron she’s come to personify. She does it well, if obviously. Cage has more fun with his part, delineating his character right down to the way he gingerly sips alcohol or absolutely never fails to buckle his seat belt. There’s also a nice little bauble from Richard Griffiths as the lady’s personal nurse.
Wilson puts together a slick package that doesn’t quite fit. Overall, tech credits are a little too loud and bend toward realism when fancy is wanted. But “Guarding Tess” isn’t quite sure how to best accent itself, valiantly proceeding scene by scene, winning some, missing others, and finally losing the day.