Yucking It Up

As creator, writer, director and producer of the TV series WKRP in Cincinnati, Frank's Place and The Famous Teddy Z, Hugh Wilson took standard situation comedy and made it unconventional, literate, hip, incisive and, most of all, funny. He achieved similar, if more modest success with the playful sendup movie Rustler's Rhapsody, which he wrote and directed. To say he has lapsed with Guarding Tess is putting it nicely.

There should be a warning label on movies like Tess: AVOID CONTACT IF STORY PITCH CAN BE SUMMARIZED IN ONE SENTENCE. Tess's: a beloved former First Lady, cantankerous behind doors, engages in a battle of wills with her rules-and-regulations Secret Service bodyguard, who itches for more active duty. The only surprise here is wondering what (besides money) possessed terrific Shirley MacLaine and engaging Nicolas Cage to star. Not even her patented wily frankness or his earnest physicality can save this dud.

The script is listless and mirthless. MacLaine has her bodyguards run errands, make snacks and check their guns at the door. Cage would rather she didn't. They complain to the White House about each other. The humor's ambition: she likes opera; he, Mr. Ed. For something to do, she pretends she's a nobody at a supermarket while the checkers pretend not to notice her pretending. She uses her alarm to announce she wants to play golf -- in 30-degree weather -- and initiates chase scenes so she can have some privacy. Other yu(c)ks: snore-at-the-opera and get-out-come-back-I'm-leaving-no-I'm-staying scenes. There are irate phone calls from the successor president that end with the chief saying, "Have a nice day." Coffee spills on a groin. Jokes are made at the obligatory fat guy's expense, and for really big laughs, there's toilet humor too.

The characters have a humanizing moment over a drink, and late in the movie, things turn ludicrously dangerous for the sudden friends. It seems a trusted servant isn't to be trusted. The expected unexpected clue pops up, though, leading to a predictably hokey ending to a lame movie that should've been put out of its misery before it ever began limping along. -- Peter Szatmary

Guarding Tess.
Directed by Hugh Wilson. Starring Shirley MacLaine and Nicolas Cage.
Rated PG-13.

98 minutes.


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