MacLaine illuminates rare 'Tess'

March 11, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Supple, poignant and frequently hilarious, "Guarding Tess" checks in as the year's first big movie surprise.

Of course any movie with Shirley MacLaine begins its existence with a key question: Which MacLaine will show up? The restrained, wickedly vivid MacLaine of "Terms of Endearment" or the big, sloppy love-me-or-I'll-shoot-this-dog MacLaine of "Madam Sousatzka"?

So it is that "Guarding Tess" gets off on exactly the right note when it becomes clear that MacLaine's former first lady Tess Carlisle is about as sentimental and self-indulgent as rubbing alcohol, and that MacLaine's performance is equally astringent.

Tess is acerbic, imperious, flinty, an essay in character. She works like a dog, is demanding as a headmistress at a snotty finishing school and never gives an inch if a millimeter will do. At the same time, she's got integrity. In one sad, brilliant little scene, she turns down the desperate implorings of her own son, who needs her endorsement on a business project. We see her pain as she says no. And later, she acknowledges her awareness of how her and her husband's career crippled their children. Wonderful stuff: someone actually facing responsibility. What a novelty for America!

But she's no paragon, and Hugh Wilson's script (co-written with Peter Torokvei), which is in some way conceived as a study of old-time American virtues, is wise enough to show her weaknesses as well as her strengths.

She can be a classic ingrate, mean, crabby, petty and selfish; she is shameless in pulling rank; she's a secret lush; she's vain as a peacock and she lives secretly in the past, indulging in the nostalgia of video replays of her past days. She's pure repression, with an ivory-boned corset around her inner life, and two fiery eyes that broadcast one message: No admittance.

Widowed, she lives in self-imposed exile on an estate in rural Ohio, and if the Ohio countryside has never looked lovelier, even in the rain, that's because it's the Maryland countryside -- the movie was actually shot here.

The domicile is not a happy one, for she shares it with a squad of Secret Service agents whom, one would suspect, given the nature and placement of the assignment, are not exactly on the fast track.

There's a continual tension between Tess' iron whimsy and the assertions of leadership and the earnest pleadings of Doug Chesnic, the SAIC (Special Agent in Charge). Chesnic is played by another specialist in self-indulgence -- the soulful moondog Nicolas Cage, who astounds with his sure performance as a security-detail pro. Doug is watchful and tough and a stickler for the rules. Of course, the reason he cannot get along with Tess is that in some ways they are the same person.

And of course, under it all, they care deeply about each other. But for the longest time, "Guarding Tess" offers the vivid pleasures of watching an old battleship and a fast light cruiser do the full surface warfare routine, lobbing precise strikes at each other.

Wilson built a comedy career out of the TV show "WKRP in Cincinnati," so he's something of a specialist in snippy, hostile comedy. "Guarding Tess" offers clashes large and small between these well-matched and conspicuously amusing antagonists.

The film also has a wonderful feel for details; workplace seems to be another specialty of Wilson's. One actually gets a glimpse of how a Secret Service executive protection detail works and how the agents would relate, not only to their subject but to each other and the larger organization; the Secret Service culture was believable. And throughout, small touches impress with a sense of verisimilitude.

Three times, for example, "the President" calls to upbraid Chesnic for this or that malfeasance; just think how many times the presence of "the President" had utterly destroyed a movie. But this president's voice feels exactly and intuitively right: tough, funny, charming, just bulldogging its way through and getting its way. (Wilson himself reads the part.)

At every point, it seems that Wilson coolly resists the temptation to do the big Hollywood thing; there's a true sense of professionalism to the proceedings, a willingness to keep things in the realm of the possible. One key example: At a certain point late in the film, Tess is kidnapped, and it turns out that Doug manages to figure out who did it and that time is of the essence in recovering her. In 99 out of 100 THMs (typical Hollywood movies), Doug and his unit would handle the operation, and the scene would be staged for glory, goofball comedy and adoration of the images of the stars. And, typically, it would stink. It's only a movie, you'd say.

But of course in real life, the investigating officers would let an FBI Hostage Rescue Team handle the job, which is exactly the way Wilson has Chesnic handle it, and the thing goes down quietly, without phony drama. Alas, the late-movie plot development that sets this up -- the kidnapping itself and its solution -- is "Guarding Tess's" weakest stroke; it smacks of a certain kind of narrative desperation, as if in story conference, some Tri-Star exec demanded more punch for the bucks. So the development feels gratuitous, and the brutal method by which Chesnic "solves" it completely out of character and unnecessary.

But "Guarding Tess" remains something rare: tough, funny and original.

"Guarding Tess"

Starring Shirley MacLaine and Nicolas Cage

Directed by Hugh Wilson

Released by Tri-Star

PG-13

***

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