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You can believe Shirley MacLaine is American royalty: The haughty air with its incongruous folksy touches, the larger-than-life entrances, the unconventional spiritual beliefs - all are marks of that self-appointed aristocracy that seems to grow out of celebrity.So MacLaine as a first lady of the United States is hardly a stretch. She has the title role in Hugh Wilson's ``Guarding Tess,' one of those comedies that tries to wrest deep human feeling from frankly unpleasant characters who are either old enough to know better or too old to give a hang.

The audience that loved ``Grumpy Old Men' should also go for ``Guarding Tess.' The cantankerous quotient is just as high, and the ultimate lapse into sentimentality is about as grueling.

Those whose values point elsewhere can still enjoy ``Tess' for its robust lead performances and its sharp comic timing.

The film's tension occurs chiefly between MacLaine and Nicolas Cage, who plays a straight-arrow Secret Service man assigned to protect the presidential widow. Tess, who is either a free spirit or a spoiled brat, depending on how one looks at things, rankles under supervision and retaliates by reducing the agent and his teammates to domestic servants.

Cage, who seldom gives an uninteresting performance, is most believable as a combat-ready enforcer stuck on nursemaid duty.

MacLaine, in her most imperious role since ``Madame Souzatzka,' performs grandly until at length the script starts pandering and drags her down with it.

Standouts in support include Austin Pendleton and Richard Griffiths as hired help, and Edward Albert - himself the offspring of Old Hollywood royalty - as Tess' overdependent son.


What: ``Guarding Tess'

Rating: PG-13 for language, violent action, mature themes

Theaters: Litchfield, Brassfield, Janus


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