Shirley MacLaine may believe she was Dolly Madison or Mary Todd Lincoln in a previous life, but right now her only shot at First Ladyhood comes in a hot-and-cold comedy called Guarding Tess.

The widow of a beloved president, Tess Carlisle is regarded by all America as a living monument to grace, charm and dignity. But the Secret Service detail stuck with protecting her at the family homestead in Ohio knows better: She's a vain, willful, sharp-tongued harridan who's reduced these proud men to caddies, waiters and gofers.

It's a delightful concept, and the movie-long tug of war between Tess and agent-in-charge Doug Chesnic (Nicolas Cage) takes some unexpected turns when Tess starts breaking away on joyrides with her chauffeur (Austin Pendleton), nodding off at the opera and eventually getting into authentic danger.

MacLaine's performance feels highly synthetic in places, but she's obviously brushed up on her First Ladies: You'll find hints of everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to Nancy Reagan in her performance, and by mid-movie we not only marvel at Tess Carlisle's high-handedness but we sympathize with her loneliness and admire her staunch pride. The scene in which she lies alone in bed with a glass of bourbon, reviewing her husband's elaborate state funeral on videotape, is authentically touching, and it suggests what another recent First Lady might have experienced in the Sixties.

Cage proves himself a perfect foil. At once respectful and exasperated, a strictly-by-the-book cop, he's the only guy on earth who dares defy the autocratic Tess, and we slowly come to see how much she likes him for it. When the current president interrupts poor Doug in the bathroom with a stern phone call about his mission in life, he snaps to. But when Tess tries to send him after an errant golf ball, he balks gloriously.

Guarding Tess is not quite as sharp or witty as last year's presidential-impostor comedy Dave, but it plays deftly on the secrets of media imagery and the uses of political debt, and it provides the illusion of another glimpse into the halls of power. Credibility breaks down with an unlikely kidnapping and a couple of other ill-founded plot twists from writer/director Hugh Wilson, best known for creating TV's WKRP in Cincinnati. But the performances endure and the comedy survives pretty well: That tune you hear is "Hail to the Wife."

Wonder if Hillary has caught it on her way to the bank.


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