- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

“Under the Tuscan Sun” takes slap-happy liberties with its source material, the Frances Mayes best seller about how she and her husband, Ed, discovered a second home in Cortona, Italy, by acquiring and restoring a hillside villa called Bramasole, which translates roughly as “yearning for the sun.” Writer-director Audrey Wells, who demonstrated far more sophistication in her first feature, “Guinevere,” appears to be yearning for a feminized hit of “American Pie” magnitude that might also be good for multiple sitcom spinoffs.

As a fictional Frances Mayes, Diane Lane risks her status as Hollywood’s most appealing pushover for adultery in order to warm our cockles as an adorable madcap, sort of a wacky-wistful Lucy Ricardo crossed with Mary Richards. She impulsively decides to homestead in Tuscany after being driven in heartache from San Francisco, where she supposedly flourished as a writer and college teacher before being cruelly betrayed by an unseen, treacherous spouse.

Even before reaching her bucolic hideaway, which might be titled “Verdi Acres,” Frances is shuttled through a pair of transitory sitcom pretexts: a short residence in a sad sack hotel that caters to financially strapped marital losers; and sightseeing with a tour group called Gay Away, which adopts Frances as the sorrowful straight misfit.

Once transplanted to picturesque Tuscany, the heroine becomes Snow White to a quartet of Polish carpenters who work for a Cortona contractor; doting matchmaker for one of the crewmen smitten with a local girl whose prosperous parents disapprove; an object of vaguely lecherous pity to a kind and conscientious real estate man named Signor Martini (Vincent Riotta); lifesaver to a pregnant lesbian sidekick named Patti (Sandra Oh); credulous companion for a sacred monster type called Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), who claims to have been a dear friend of the late Federico Fellini; and lovelorn putty in the hands of a handsome but untrustworthy young restaurant owner named Marcello (Raoul Bova).



The Marcello infatuation pays scenic rather than romantic dividends, since Marcello’s establishment is located in the seacoast town of Positano, where buildings seem to cling improbably to the cliffs. Coy to a sidesplitting fault, Miss Wells commences the affair with Frances and Marcello petting a stray pussycat. He pretty much seals the conquest with an outrageous claim: “I could swim inside your eyes.” Since swooning is her specialty, his is a no-risk boast.

Miss Lane may be protected to some extent by the excruciating miscalculations that weaken other roles, notably the monolithic Katherine, who does a drunken imitation of Anita Ekberg’s stroll in the fountain in “La Dolce Vita.” A throwback to the tradition of Tallulah Bankhead rather than Fellini’s Guilietta Masina, Katherine leaves Lindsay Duncan looking like a derelict dreadnought. Her worldly wise pronouncements echo with emptiness rather than authority. She’s even peculiarly inept with a prop that shouldn’t be terribly daunting in any performer’s hands, an ice cream cone. Of course, the entire movie is rather like an oversized klutz who pokes himself in the eye with repeated ice cream cones while trying to express an irrepressible zest for life.

To be fair, “Under the Tuscan Sun” is also one of the jolliest excuses for mockery since Luciano Pavarotti chased romance in sunny Napa and Sonoma counties in “Yes, Giorgio.” Ah, if only he and Diane Lane could have co-starred in a supremely absurd example of life-affirming romantic comedy.

*1/2

WHAT: “Under the Tuscan Sun”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting simulations of intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Audrey Wells. Screenplay by Miss Wells, based on the book by Frances Mayes.

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: Four stars

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