(director/writer: Audrey Wells; screenwriter: based on the book by Frances Mayes; cinematographer: Geoffrey Simpson; editor: Arthur Coburn; music: Christophe Beck; cast: Diane Lane (Frances), Raoul Bova (Marcello), Sandra Oh (Patti), Vincenzo Ricotta (Martini), Linday Duncan (Katherine), Robert Nobile (Placido), Giulia Steigerwalt (Chiara), Pawel Szadja (Pawel), Valentine Pelka (Jerzy); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Audrey Wells/Tom Sternberg; Touchstone Pictures; 2003-USA/Italy, in English and Italian with English subtitles)

Looked like a pic for tourists.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Under the Tuscan Sun is filmed with an endless string of chick film clich├ęs that it tries to dance around but because there are so many it can’t help stepping over so many of them. It is adapted to film in a conventional way by writer-director Audrey Wells (“Guinevere“) from Frances Mayes’ best selling memoir. It’s a comedy/romance adventure story about the 35-year-old San Francisco college professor, book reviewer and writer, Frances Mayes (Diane Lane), whose perfect life crashes unexpectedly when her husband secretly meets a younger woman and divorces her. She unfairly loses the luxury house she put all the money into fixing up in the alimony fight and is forced to move into an apartment building catering to those who are divorced and plan only short-term stays. Her pregnant lesbian friend Patti (Sandra Oh) gives up her plane ticket to send the intelligent straight writer on a trip to Tuscany with a gay group called “Gay and Away” so she can forget about her heartaches.

“Tuscan” plays as an internal adventure story about the depressed woman overcoming her heartbreak on this journey to find herself. Frances is looked upon as a brave woman to start over and to fight against her fears of being alone in a foreign country. The story offers a sensible take on a serious problem, but uses obvious comic sight gags to keep it sitcom light and never get to probe any real inner feelings with a purpose. Ms. Wells added more characters than the book to make it more cinematic, and added some subplot romances and more structure. But at the end of the sunny day, it still looked like a pic for tourists. The film’s two saving graces that do battle against its heavy-handed construction and overall sappiness are: the beautiful scenic views of the Italian countryside and Diane Lane providing a sparkling and likable performance that made her someone the viewer cared about. Diane Lane does much with this meaty role that she’s well-suited for, as she runs with this cutesy screenplay and gives it some unexpected life and warmth. What no one could give this film was a sense of depth, or a feeling that everything wasn’t contrived. Every character came across as a stereotype that we too often see in these audience friendly mainstream flicks. It also was in the habit of wrapping everything up in a tidy manner, so when a fancy water tap in an old Italian house doesn’t work one can be certain that by the film’s conclusion the plumbing will be fixed and there will be water flowing from this tap as this will be a symbolic message that all’s right again.

While on the sightseeing tour, Frances spots a quaint but rundown 300-year old villa called Bramasole for sale in the friendly Tuscan village of Cortona, about an hour away from Firenze, where all the locals seem to be either licking ice cream cones or sipping wine. On an impulse Frances outbids a German couple to buy the house without looking it over. The amenable real estate agent (Ricotta) brings over some oddball contractors and Frances hires from the group an elderly Italian contractor who uses three Polish laborers to remodel the place, and this leads to a subplot of the forbidden romance by one of the teenager Polish laborers with the boss’ daughter.

Restless and worried that she might not have made the right decision, Frances takes a break from fixing up the house and flees to Rome to check out the sights. There she runs into the gorgeous Italian stallion Marcello (Bova) and has a quick fling expecting it to lead to marriage. But in this journey the Lane character finds peace of mind not in romance but in helping others by being there for them. There’s also a baseball metaphor leftover from the Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” This pearl of wisdom is laid on her by the real estate guy to cheer her up when she doubts if she did the right thing in buying the villa, as he mentions that the Italians built the railroad tracks across the Alps to get to Vienna before they had the trains. Frances buys into that pep talk and soon she’s as happy as a ladybug in her fancy remodeled digs, sipping wine and walking through the village to buy the marketplace’s shiny fruit and hearty breads, and solving a multitude a problems for the locals–though she’s not yet on the Mother Theresa level.

This sappy tale didn’t irritate me as much as it could have since it had a way of somehow getting through all its heaviness, but I found it to be only an eyeful of sweets that left me hungry for a real story about a desperate woman who is actually searching for her inner being. This film is all pretty postcard scenery and Diane Lane making nice, as every other character was a bore and the heartfelt story is so suspect that I must say that despite its noble aims it was not worth thinking about.

Under the Tuscan Sun