Charlie Kaufman must be burning with envy of Audrey Wells, who in Under the Tuscan Sun has achieved what Kaufman tried to do with The Orchid Thief (i.e., turn a highly readable but unfilmable book into a movie — Kaufman ended up writing a movie about not being able to write the movie). Wells has taken Frances Mayes’ nonfiction bestseller and cheerfully fictionalized it, keeping only the basic idea (woman oversees the reconstruction of an Italian villa) and the title. Fans of the book might not be pleased with the results, though the movie is charming enough to lure non-readers to Mayes’ far different narrative — as long as they’re not expecting a tale of a divorcee, her Italian lover, and her sarcastic pregnant lesbian friend.
Fans of Diane Lane, on the other hand, should be happy with what amounts to a glowing vehicle for her. She plays Frances as a somewhat bewildered, overwhelmed woman who doesn’t mind being overwhelmed sometimes. When she first enters what will become her villa in Tuscany and a flock of pigeons flap loudly across her path, she is startled into laughter, not fear. Life has thrown Frances a curveball — her husband has dumped her for another woman — and when given the opportunity to take a free tour of Tuscany (courtesy of gay friend Patti, played with considerable wit by Sandra Oh), she almost passes it up. But she eventually gives in, and falls in love with a villa she hasn’t even seen from the inside yet. As she puts it, “I can’t go back to San Francisco.” She’d rather take on a Tuscan money pit in a place where she doesn’t know anyone (or the language) than go back “home” in defeat.
So the story, as reconceived by Wells, becomes about how Frances repairs herself as well as the villa. She does eventually make friends who pull her out of herself, including the free-spirited Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), who says she was once cast in a Fellini film as a little girl. Not by accident does the movie evoke Fellini and not, say, Antonioni (heck, Frances’ life back in Frisco would’ve been the Antonioni film). Tuscany is romanticized as a simpler, magical place where a splatter of bird poop on one’s head is taken as a good sign. It’s all very fluffy, but this is good-hearted and great-looking fluff, photographed on location (by Geoffrey Simpson) to bring out Tuscany’s ancient beguiling wonders.
There’s a love story, of course. Frances falls for the hunky Marcello (Raoul Bova); he’s married, but then so was her husband, and Frances may go into the affair as much out of spite towards her ex as out of passion. She doesn’t recognize, naturally, that she has become the “other woman” who once stole her own husband away; as in Unfaithful, Lane shows us all the goofy and hot-blooded emotions involved in sex, though I hope she doesn’t become typecast as Woman Who Has Flings Against Her Better Judgment. In any event, the way Lane plays these affairs, we may doubt her judgment but we never begrudge it. The giddy little dance she does after her first sacktime with Marcello proves her innate ability to win our empathy; here’s hoping she never uses this power for evil.
Under the Tuscan Sun is of the “everyone goes home happy” school of romantic comedies. That’s what it’s built to do, and Audrey Wells, who has shown a taste for more dramatic work (Guinevere, her only previous directorial outing, from 1999) as well as lighter fare (such as The Truth About Cats and Dogs and Shall We Dance?), does what she sets out to do. She remains one of the better dialogue carpenters in the business, too; an early scene with Jeffrey Tambor as Frances’ attorney vibrates with what isn’t said, and we are grateful to Wells for having faith in our intelligence — we figure things out along with Frances. That’s also true of the final shot, which sums up the whole restoration theme of the movie without calling undue attention to itself. Under the Tuscan Sun will please people who aren’t ordinarily pleased at the movies these days — older folks uninterested in gun-toting vampires or wrestlers moonlighting as actors — and it earns their pleasure.