By Lisa Schwarzbaum
September 24, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

The camera showers Diane Lane with victory kisses in Under the Tuscan Sun. The sensual actress — who conveyed the thrumming, intimate memory of illicit sex with nothing more than the quiver of tiny muscles between her eyebrows in ”Unfaithful” — gets to showcase the same erotic expressiveness. Only this time, Lane’s hungry character is nothing but good, the men around her are nothing but in love with her loveliness, and the only danger that lurks is a harmless garden snake that slithers into her bedroom. The role is a glamour gig, a love hug for an actress in a revival of stardom. It’s also a golden vise of women’s romance-pic clichés.

Lane plays Frances Mayes, an American writer heartbroken by divorce from a cheating husband, who visits picture-book Tuscany on a recuperative vacation, buys a rundown country house on a whim, and, with the help of local romantics — which is to say, everyone in town from enamored real estate agent to smitten laborer — stays to bloom on foreign soil like a sunflower. And if the house-in-Italy notion sounds familiar, that’s because the real Mayes, a poet and travel writer, published a succulent, hugely popular memoir in 1996 about the restorative qualities of her own once-neglected villa, in which she made readers believe that the repair of a stone garden wall is the sexiest of projects for a woman starting over.

Mayes also did much of the work with the unflappable fellow who became her second husband. In the movies, though, real-time stonemasonry is less than riveting and steady beaus are dull. Which is why writer-director Audrey Wells (”Guinevere”) gives the on-screen Frances a pregnant, lesbian friend from San Francisco (Sandra Oh) who supplies the drama with welcome moments of comic buoyancy; an alluring British neighbor (Lindsay Duncan) who still dines out on her days as an actress in Fellini films; and a handsome but unreliable Italian lover, Marcello (Raoul Bova), who does for Frances what Olivier Martinez’s French lover did for Lane-as-housewife in ”Unfaithful,” and what hippie lover Viggo Mortensen did for Lane-as-housewife in ”A Walk on the Moon.” In the universal symbol for a woman who needs to Get Some, Lane’s hair is looser after she finally does.

It is, however, not Wells’ newly devised characters that sap the movie of the spirit that separated the book from the rest of the sophisticated-foreigners-charmed-by-unpretentious-locals pack of aspirational best-sellers; in themselves, the sidekicks are diverting, and the scenes between Marcello and Frances are as dreamy as a moviegoer in love with love could wish. But that’s just it — every other character, including the house and the country it’s built on, is a sidekick to Frances and her triumphant heroism on the road back to self-fulfillment. The author was able to compensate for the book’s plotlessness by contemplating other people leading full lives quite as important as hers. In Wells’ movie adaptation, even the birth of a friend’s baby becomes all about Frances and the play of emotions on Lane’s busy, beautiful face.

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 113 minutes
  • Audrey Wells
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