A patronizing, eye-rolling romantic fantasy aimed at lonely middle-aged women, "Under the Tuscan Sun" stars the luminous Diane Lane (its only saving grace) as a heartbroken novelist licking her wounds from a surprise divorce (the husband she put through school has left her for a younger woman) by traveling to the therapeutic Italian countryside.
Surrounded by colorful eccentrics with sexy accents who serve up allegorical fables and Hallmark-card advice ("Always keep your childish innocence!"), our heroine Frances Mayes follows a whim while on vacation and buys a picturesquely run-down old villa to renovate as a life-affirming metaphor.
Even as she frets that "There's three bedrooms -- what if there's never anyone to sleep in them?," we know there's a strapping, wavy-haired hunk with piercing eyes (Raoul Bova) waiting for her on a beach somewhere who appreciates the charms of 40-ish American women seeking validation of their desirability. And we know that while, for the sake of dramatic structure, he may not be the right guy for her (those philandering Italians!), she's learning to live by the motto "I looked for it but I didn't find it. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist!"
Well, not until the pandering happenstance of last reel salvation, anyway.
Driven by dozens of shopworn, on-cue contrivances of romance, empowerment and locality, "Under the Tuscan Sun" is a Harlequin novel of a movie, lent a pinch of unfabricated charisma by the long-underappreciated Lane, whose career has been revived by last year's Oscar nomination for "Unfaithful." Achievably beautiful and accessible enough to be an Everywoman around whom audiences can rally, she brings veracity to her flustered and forlorn character through an introspective performance of melancholy hope and good humor.
But director Audrey Wells (writer of "The Truth About Cats and Dogs") -- who adapted and further fictionalized a semi-autobiographical book by the real Frances Mayes -- leaves her star drowning in trite predictability.
Frances's Italian stallion fling begins with a meet-cute in the cobblestoned town square, followed by wine, passionate sex, watching sunsets from his balcony while wearing nothing but his shirt, and lines like, "You have beautiful eyes, Francesca. I wish I could swim in them." (This isn't excused by the fact that she responds, "That's exactly the kind of thing American women think Italian men say.")
Vespa rides through seaside villages provide postcard ambiance. Comic relief comes in house-renovation vignettes of leaky roofs and collapsing ceilings. Surrogate romanticism is served up as Frances helps one of her amiable Polish-immigrant contractors find love with a local girl who has close-minded parents.
And every time something makes Frances frown (disloyal men, a redecorating set-back), something warm and reassuring comes along to distract her in the very next scene -- like the unexpected arrival of her pregnant, token-lesbian best friend (Sandra Oh) who has just been dumped too.
"Tuscan Sun" is riddled with many more incidental problems, like over-rehearsed small talk at parties, manufactured conflicts (Frances and her Italian beau are unable to mesh schedules for three months even though she has no obligations to speak of) and bad soundstage backdrops out the windows of the fixer-upper villa.
But Frances sums up the movie best herself when composing a letter home: "Clichés abound at this navel of the world...," she writes. And how, sister! And how.
Run time: 113 mins
In Theaters: Friday 26th September 2003
Box Office USA: $43.5M
Distributed by: Buena Vista Pictures
Production compaines: Touchstone Pictures, Timnick Films, Blue Gardenia Productions, Tatiale Films
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 62%
Fresh: 92 Rotten: 57
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Audrey Wells
Starring: Diane Lane as Frances, Sandra Oh as Patti, Lindsay Duncan as Katherine, Raoul Bova as Marcello, Vincent Riotta as Martini, Mario Monicelli as Old Man with Flowers, Roberto Nobile as Placido, Anita Zagaria as Fiorella, Evelina Gori as Nona Cardinale, Giulia Steigerwalt as Chiara, Pawel Szajda as Pawel, Valentine Pelka as Jerzy, Sasa Vulicevic as Zbignew, Massimo Sarchielli as Nino, Claudia Gerini as Signora Raguzzi
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