Sometimes, when you’ve reached a certain age, love’s not enough. It’s gotta be supported with real estate. This is the moral I culled from “Under the Tuscan Sun,” a film about one woman’s journey of self-renewal and redemption, via the purchase (and subsequent renovation) of a 300-year-old Italian villa. At one point she breaks down and weeps: “I don’t have a life that will fill these empty rooms, all these empty bedrooms!” But the Italian realtor soothes her with the story of a railroad line built over the Alps when no train could make it up there. The builders had faith that someday a train would materialize — and sure enough, it did.
The woman blinks back her tears and goes shopping (for a spare chandelier part) and lo! She locks gazes with a smoldering Italian dude. He offers a ride on his Vespa, invites her for dinner, and wine. Eventually he tells her she’s beautiful and that he wants to make love “all over” her. There it is girls, the answer to all our problems: first, get to Italy. Next, buy the house. And the right life will materialize.
Directed by Audrey Wells (“Guinevere”) and starring Diane Lane, “Under the Tuscan Sun” is a chick-flick on female hormonal overdrive. The film leaves no cliche unturned: the lush, beautiful Tuscan countryside awash in 2,000 kw of sunshine; the huge, romantic villa with an olive grove and tomatoes in the garden; the incredible culinary skills of the heroine displayed before adoring onlookers; and, of course, the dark, muscular love interest named Marcello.
This was inspired by the autobiographical best seller by Frances Mayes, but fans will find that the the original story has been Disnified beyond recognition (to the extent that there’s even a disclaimer at the end of the film stressing that this is not an adaptation). In the book, Mayes quit her life in San Francisco, then spent years combing the Italian countryside with her poet boyfriend looking for that one dream house. When she found it, she agonized for another couple of months before making up her mind, then poured the next few years of her life into refurbishing it. In the movie, Frances (Lane) spies the villa from a tour bus whereupon she immediately yells out to the driver to stop. Five minutes later, she’s inspecting the rooms with utter delight, and hiring three sweet Polish workmen for the fix-up job. (Actually, this is probably what many people will find the most fantastical: workmen who always show up on time and get things done, never complain, or disappear.)
Even Frances’ (or Francesca, as she later comes to be called by her local friends) trip to Italy has fairy-tale tones, albeit the ones we hear from palm readers. The plane ticket was a gift from her best friend, Patti (Sandra Oh), a lesbian who suddenly found herself pregnant and decides to forego the Gay Italian Vacation Tour. Patti also wanted Frances to go somewhere abroad and forget about life in the States (i.e., philandering husband, painful divorce) for awhile. Gratefully, Frances accepts.
The film’s early stages have a kind of catty energy with smart, snappy conversations between Frances and Patti. But things lose momentum immediately after Frances’ arrival in Tuscany. She finds the villa, she feels that life is offering new possibilities, she sheds her American stoicism to open up and express her emotions. Lane’s best bit: After Frances and Marcello make love, she romps around in her lingerie, punches the air with her fist and chants “Yes! Yes! I’ve still got it!”
This is Lane’s first outing since her Oscar-nominated performance in “Unfaithful.” As is so often the case in the Hollywood babe pool, she’s gone from dark, high-caliber drama to wafer-lite entertainment. But there’s no disputing that she’s the best thing happening in this movie. On occasion, the gutsiness she displayed in “Unfaithful” surfaces, deprettifying the scene and hosing it down with some much-needed earthiness. On the whole, however, she’s surrounded by a cast who are more cardboard than flesh and blood: the colorful, cheery family from Ecuador who live next door; the big-hearted San Francisco lesbian; an eccentric ex-pat, Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), who wears splendid big hats and quotes Fellini at every turn. And then there’s Marcello from Planet Harlequin Romance. Frances is too caught up in the pleasures of refurbishing her villa or plucking gorgeous tomatoes for a fabulous salad to give him all of her attention, but that’s OK. He’s always there, looking at her with soulful, worshipping eyes.
In the end, one’s in the mood to forgive all, mainly in the name of Diane Lane. See her taking in the Italian sunshine, bending over the flowers, running with utter grace down a country lane.
Give her the house, the guy, the olives, the Terence Conran gardening shears — she deserves them all, right? Right. And if Lane doesn’t make you feel this way, there’s just no other reason to see this film.