Under the Tuscan Sun

(2003) ** Pg-13
113 min. Touchstone Pictures. Director: Audrey Wells. Cast: Diane Lane, Sandra Oh, Lindsay Duncan, Raoul Bova, Vincenzo Ricotta (II).

Audrey Wells's filmic version of Frances Mayes's bestselling travelogue-memoir Under the Tuscan Sun misses the boat. Those expecting an earthy, realistic take on Mayes's self-rediscovery by way of an Italian villa will be disappointed. At first, Under the Tuscan Sun seems to promise something else entirely, a Hollywood throwback with tough-minded characterization, snappy humor, character-actor zest, and widescreen, Technicolor romance. After a winning first act, this last breath of summer wind carries in the foul stench of bull plop.

In the cutesy but fun early-going, Frances (Diane Lane) turns haggard and hopeless in reaction to her whirlwind, "surreal" divorce proceedings. Left without house or home, she moves into a lonely apartment building, where a wisecracking landlord and comically despairing bachelors drain her lifeforce. Soon enough, Frances is ready to take up an offer by her lesbian friend Patti (annoying comic Sandra Oh) to fly to Tuscany on vacation. Once there, she impulsively buys a fixer-upper villa and sets to work rethinking her life, revitalizing her art, and revamping her love life.

The charismatic setup is marvelous, delineating as it does one woman's funny first steps toward hard-won self-empowerment, but it's a setup for what? Over an hour of fortune-cookie philosophy and cheap emotional displays. Wells's numerous wholesale changes to Mayes's non-fiction book might have been palatable if the film's charm were more lasting, but Under the Tuscan Sun becomes more and more precious and self-satisfied by the minute. I couldn't help but chuckle to imagine Mayes and real-life love Ed Kleinschmidt (here relegated to the film's margin) trying to sit through their screen life, rewritten to be nearly unrecognizable.

Wells, who also penned the script, defines Frances mostly by bouncing her off of silly supporting characters, like goofy contractor Nino (Massimo Sarchielli) and a Polish Three Stooges of construction workers (Valentine Pelka, Sasa Vulicevic and Pawel Szajda); one is the young Romeo of a plot sidetrack, and another is defined only by the Czeslaw Milosz book he carries. Katherine (Lindsay Duncan) is a self-styled Fellini heroine (though she plays more like a deluded Scarlett O'Hara); tall, light, and handsome Marcello (Raoul Bova) fulfills two played-out phases of bittersweet romance for the swoony Mayes.

For all this, Under the Tuscan Sun qualifies as a guilty pleasure, a diverting if too-often graceless heir to magical travel films like Summertime. Wells lovingly captures the breathtaking, postcard-perfect views of Tuscany we expect to see (omnipresent sunflowers, a colorful flag-throwing festival, and the green or tan deep-cut countrysides) and cleverly integrates key passages of the book's narration. As the self-effacing real-estate agent Martini, Vincent Riotta practically steals the whole movie, and Diane Lane's incisive expressiveness--though sometimes showy--skillfully identifies her every feeling to the audience in the great movie-star tradition. Nevertheless, the film's clean-scrubbed clichés and fatal lack of forward momentum sink the whole enterprise. I would have settled for something old under the sun, but there's no there there.

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