U.S. Release Date: September 26, 2003
Distributor: Buena Vista
Writer: Audrey Wells
Composer: Christophe Beck
Cast: Diane Lane
Running Time: 1 hour and 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (sexual content and language)

A Little Sunburn
by Scott Holleran

Something's missing from Audrey Wells's journey Under the Tuscan Sun. The rhythmic motion of Wells's pleasant story of one woman's restoration in Italy, based on the book by Frances Mayes, is disjointed; it plays more like a series of postcards than a soulful Italian romance. Postcards have their place and there are certainly some pretty pictures.

From the early scenes in San Francisco, it's clear that writer Frances (Diane Lane) has been wronged by her husband, whom she divorces, and that she deserves a break—though the divorce is too pat and Frances's role in her failed marriage is given a pass. Still, when her gay gal pal, Patti (Sandra Oh) foresees Frances's despair and buys her a birthday vacation to the Tuscany region of Italy, the idea resonates. Frances starts packing.

Frances's first encounters in Italy offer some of the movie's best scenes. After going through the motions, she finds herself captivated by one stop along the way —- an Italian village. Frances feels at home; a picture of an old villa catches her fancy and, soon, she's following a mysterious, enchanting woman (Lindsay Duncan, Lady Markby in An Ideal Husband) who entices Frances to make the Tuscan town her home.

Frances resists such radical measures and, in the movie's only satisfying instant of spontaneity, Frances, sitting on the bus as it departs, spots the villa as it passes by. Suddenly seized by the desire for a better life, she flees the tour bus in a powerful moment that roars: "Stop the world! I want to get off!"

The villa's superstitious owner gets a sign and Frances buys the villa. Frances meets several charming people, including a married man who helps her buy the estate, Signor Martini, (Vincent Riotta), a trio of Polish laborers who restore the villa and an Italian named Marcello, (Raoul Bova) with whom she has an affair.

As Frances falls in love, Under the Tuscan Sun, despite handsome photography, good humor and great costumes, falls flat. Work on the house and binding friendship intervenes and Frances is forced to face the consequences. That the love of a lifetime falls prey to perpetually missed signals hardly seems likely for a woman willing to ditch San Francisco for a European village. Frances's motives and goals are never sufficiently explored; there isn't much there to restore.

The problem lies in Diane Lane's portrayal, which veers wildly from self-confident American writer to horny middle-aged woman, with Lane repeating her Unfaithful scenes. While some might say that Lane's character is too old, the truth is she's too easy. Bova's Marcello is more Fabio fantasy than flesh and blood—he's kind to animals and children—and the love scenes are desperate, not passionate. Under the Tuscan Sun is not Diane Lane's best work, which has long been featured in smaller roles such as Indian Summer and The Perfect Storm.

Under the Tuscan Sun is often splendid. Wells's theme that, sometimes, one's friends are one's true family and that love comes when one's not looking are rewarding. But, from sunsets to key moments, the camera doesn't linger long enough to sell the message. Tuscan is less a love story than a thinly drawn tale of fatalism—a female Field of Dreams: If you renovate it, he will come.

Sandra Oh as Patti and Vincent Riotta as the real estate agent are especially strong. Oh plays a wide range of emotions and Riotta is so thoroughly convincing as Frances's would-be suitor that it's too bad he wasn't cast as the movie's romantic lead. A subplot that dovetails into Frances's final scenes involves two young, gorgeous lovers played perfectly by Giulia Steigerwalt and Pawel Szadja, whose passion for one another is infectious.

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