Stars: Shirley MacLaine, Nicolas Cage. Rated PG-13 for profanity.

For those of you who think that it has been a long time since I gave a wholehearted recommendation to any film, you're absolutely right. Most of what has been released so far this year just isn't worth seeing. But the situation changes with the release of the comedy "Guarding Tess". The film, about a Secret Service agent assigned to protect a crotchety former first lady, effectively crosses the mechanics of "The Bodyguard" with the character-interaction of "Driving Miss Daisy". The result is a film that's entertaining from start to finish.

Douglas (Nicolas Cage) has spent the past three years being the special agent in charge of the protection of former first lady Tess (Shirley MacLaine). Because there was rarely a need for diligent security, Doug and his men were often relegated to being Tess's snack-fetchers, golf caddies, and the like. Now that this tour of duty is over, Doug puts in for a transfer to a higher-profile assignment, one in which he might see a little action. Tess, however, has other plans. Even though her relationship with Doug was notoriously antagonistic, she pulls strings to get him reassigned to her.

Back on the scene, and none too happy about it, Doug is determined to carry out his duties by the book. This only serves to fuel the animosity between him and Tess, to the point that she "escapes" from his care whenever the opportunity presents itself. Eventually they have a falling out at which point Tess, as is her right, declines Secret Service protection. The president of the United States, who was Tess's husband's vice president, gets wind of this and let's Doug know, in no uncertain terms, that it is in everybody's best interest that Tess not refuse protection.

Doug and his men remain vigilant outside of the former first lady's estate, until she finally allows him to speak with her again. This time they come together as friends, building up a mutual respect. Soon after she allows them back on the grounds, a tragedy strikes. Although it is thought at first to be just another "escape" attempt, Tess turns up missing and the worst is feared. When suspicions play out, several ranking officials from the Service are called in to perform a detailed investigation.

It's been a long time since a director has given the right amount of leash to the perpetually manic Nicolas Cage. Usually, they let him go hog wild and the resulting movie (ie. "Amos & Andrew", "Honeymoon in Vegas") is uncomfortably over-the-top. For this reason, as much as I like him as a performer, I rarely like his films. In "Guarding Tess", Cage is allowed to be funny and odd, but never to the point at which it would undermine his character.

As happens in many comedies, "Guarding Tess" can only be outrageous for so long before it is forced to develop a plot. In this case the abduction of Tess (wonderfully played by MacLaine), intervenes. Although the laughs become more infrequent at this point, they never stop entirely and the plot itself is actually handled quite deftly.

As the first good comedy of the year, "Guarding Tess" is a worthy reason to journey to your local movie theatre. It affords you the chance to see Nicolas Cage at his most hilarious.

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