Guarding Tess

This tale of a widowed first lady (Shirley MacLaine) and the Secret Service unit that protects her is a TV pilot trying to pass as a movie. But when the result is this entertaining and well acted, why not stop bitching and enjoy it? MacLaine's Tess Carlisle is gracious in public and a gorgon in her Ohio home. She treats her armed guards as gofers and relishes playing tricks to test their mettle.

Head agent Doug Chesnic (Nicolas Cage) has been taking shit from Tess for three years. Visions of Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire dance in his head. But just when Doug thinks he's escaped this "detail from hell," Tess calls the current president and pulls the agent back in. The prez thinks Doug may have some "sicko thing" going with Tess. It's not a romance, though the film could have profited from a small flirtation. MacLaine, a youthful 60, is a leggy dynamo in her club act. But in recent movies (Steel Magnolias, Used People) she's been hiding behind dowdy costumes and glowering looks that age her. Are these the only parts around? If so, what an indictment of Hollywood's treatment of women. Or maybe director-co-writer Hugh Wilson just wanted to make a safe Driving Miss Tessy. If so, what an indictment of Wilson's daring. First Ladies are a more adventurous breed these days.

Still, MacLaine plays the hell out of what she's got. And Cage shows a deft, light comic touch. With delicacy and wit, they build a grudging mutual admiration between these two adversaries. Tess takes wing when Wilson just stands back and lets his stars shine. Then, thud. Wilson, whose TV credits include WKRP in Cincinnati and Frank's Place, drags in an 11th-hour kidnap plot that lets a good thing dwindle into glib sitcom calculation.