Originally created 09/26/03

At the Movies: 'Under the Tuscan Sun'



"Life offers you a thousand chances," says the tagline for "Under the Tuscan Sun," the new film based on Frances Mayes' bestseller about starting a new life in Tuscany. "All you have to do is take one."

To some ears, that may sound a bit too romance novel-y, too movie-of-the-week. And that's exactly what the film feels like some of the time, with a touch of travelogue thrown in. Fortunately, it has one undeniable attribute, and it's a big one: Diane Lane.

It would be hard not to fall under Lane's spell. Not just because she's beautiful, though that certainly helps. But it seems this actress cannot strike a false note. Whatever emotion she's living through registers itself on her face so purely and simply that you just don't want the camera to leave her.

Which is a good thing for this film, because Lane is in almost every shot.

As for the rest of it, well, the scenery is beautiful and there are some genuinely touching moments. But occasionally, it's just a little too pat, nowhere more so than in the oops-let's-pull-it-all-together ending.

Frances Mayes, as many readers know, is a San Francisco-based writer who decided, with her husband, to buy and renovate a 300-year-old villa in the Tuscan town of Cortona - thereby living out the fantasy of many an armchair traveler.

When Audrey Wells set out to write and direct the film version, she decided she needed to add some dramatic tension. So in the film, Frances finds out her husband has been cheating on her, then suffers a bitter divorce. When she hits rock bottom, her friends offer her a trip to Italy as a salve for a broken heart.

Wandering through the streets with her travelmates (turns out she's been booked on a gay tour), she spies a villa for sale in a real estate agency window. Minutes later, the bus happens to pass that very same villa. "Stop the bus!" she shouts. Before you can say "impulse purchase," Frances has left the tour and bought the house - without so much as glancing into the rooms. (In reality, Mayes and her husband did a lot more research before settling on their villa, "Bramasole.")

As the days go by, Frances melts into the community. She hires a ragtag group of Polish builders to renovate her home. She makes friends with them, and with her real estate agent - a kind man who'd be her lover if he weren't devoted to his wife - and with her neighbors, and with Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), a fiftyish British woman who wears flamboyant hats and lives on memories of once working with Fellini. She starts to cook again - beautiful meals for her friends and neighbors.

At this point, the cynical among us might think, wait - is it really possible to buy a house in like, five minutes? Is absolutely everyone in Italy nice? And where are all the smokers, anyway? No one seems to smoke here. But we digress.

What Frances desperately needs is some male companionship - and she finds it in a dashingly handsome man she meets on the streets of Rome. The plot moves swiftly from there, with Frances reaching the inevitable personal insights and Wells tying it all together - a bit irksomely - at the last moment.

Quibbles aside, the film does show Tuscany in all its sun-drenched glory. And Lane, so good in "Unfaithful" and now here, shows once again that she should be getting as many big Hollywood roles as she wants. (A scene in which she exults after a romp with her new lover is worth the price of admission alone.) If this film were called "On a Dark Boring Street" rather than "Under the Tuscan Sun," Lane could still make it shine.

"Under the Tuscan Sun" is a Touchstone Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for sexual content and language. Running time: 113 minutes. Rating: two and a half stars out of four.

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G - General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.