The lush landscapes of Italy serve as appropriate set decor for a story about rediscovering the joy of life. It begins in dreary San Francisco, where blocked writer Frances (Diane Lane) finds herself suddenly single after a particularly painful divorce. At the insistence of her best friend, Patti (Sandra Oh), Frances agrees to go alone on a 10-day tour of Italy. There, apparently intoxicated by the verdant Tuscan lifestyle, she impulsively purchases a rundown villa and embarks on one bitch of a renovation. Aided by a freak-show supporting cast, including three ill-at-ease Polish laborers, a conflicted real estate agent and hedonistic bon vivant Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), Frances realizes the film's neatly wrapped message that true love only comes when one stops looking for it.
Fans of the memoir upon which the movie is based should be forewarned: Director and screenwriter Audrey Wells took major liberties with the source material. The real Frances Mayes (who, incidentally, grew up in South Georgia) experienced Tuscan life with her partner, Ed, at her side. But Wells refashions that journal of self-discovery around an altogether different agenda. She dips into the language of slightly trite self-help literature often, with lines like: "No matter what happens, always keep your childish innocence."
At one point, a character even disses the underlying up-with-me rhetoric, and scoffs, "That's so Oprah!" But like a meandering "you go, girl" article from Oprah's magazine, the film just keeps dishing up aphorisms of empowerment.
And yet in spite of its appetite for saccharine sentimentality, Under the Tuscan Sun oddly works. Lane trades in some critical credentials for her somewhat predictable lead performance, but makes Frances an empathetic heroine worth rooting for. Better still is Oh, who plays the lesbian Patti as neither particularly butch nor lipstick, but as a wisecracking Rhoda to Lane's Mary. The very pregnant Patti arrives at the villa unexpectedly at the movie's midpoint, and milks every drop out of what may be its most emotional moment.
As Katherine, the Tony Award- winning Duncan simply delights. Equal parts Catherine Deneuve and Kim Cattrall, Duncan saves the affair from its blue-sky-and-sunflowers backdrop and forcefully inserts a much-needed jolt of maturity. At least her uninhibited sexuality feels authentic. When Frances finally gets under a Tuscan man, the love scene plays like a Harlequin Romance cover come to life, with lusty bosoms, falling bra straps and marble statue scenery.
Given its three strong female players, along with a couple of hunky but disposable men for eye candy, Under the Tuscan Sun can only be called a woman's movie. Frances becomes a sort of all-giving Earth mother who helps Patti care for her newborn and plays advocate for a pair of young lovers.
It does transcend the chick flick genre in a couple of key points, and deserves credit for its nods to Frederico Fellini, even if most of the target audience probably won't recognize the La Dolce Vita references. The film also resists an altogether pat love story, with Frances' eventual romantic interest (the hot-as-Hades Raoul Bova) playing a rather minor role. Instead, the final act finds a sort of Shakespearean symmetry, with the entire cast of minor characters coming together for a grand Italian wedding.
With shades of Enchanted April (though decidedly more geared toward Middle American tastes), Under the Tuscan Sun delivers a visually rewarding and altogether enjoyable mini-vacation to Italy. It would probably wear out its welcome were it only five minutes longer. But then again, even sunlight burns if you get too much.