Superficial adaptation of best-seller dries up in the Italian sunlight
It’s no secret that Under the Tuscan Sun has a rather flimsy connection to the Frances Mayes best-seller that “inspired” it. Like the book, the Audrey Wells movie has a writer named Frances Mayes as its main character and an ancient, refurbished house in picturesque Tuscany as its main setting. But the movie is less an adaptation than a rewrite, and a hackneyed one at that.
Writer-director Wells has made Mayes into a depressed American divorcee trying to recover from the devastating break-up of her marriage. The movie’s Mayes has traded off her house in California as part of the divorce, and while moping through an organized gift tour of Tuscany, she buys—on impulse—a crumbling villa in the village of Cortona and sets about the business of having it refurbished.
Alongside the refurbishing (which is accomplished by a motley trio of illegal Polish workers), the movie would have us understand that Mayes is also repairing her life. And those repairs come via a conveniently dramatic array of sources—her transatlantic friendship with Patty (Sharon Oh), who is gay and pregnant and recovering from a break-up of her own; a deflected flirtation with a kindly real estate agent (subtle Vincent Riotta); a surrogate-parent role in the romance of the youngest of the Poles with a well-to-do local lass; a provocatively fragmented acquaintance with a boldly flamboyant English lady (Lindsay Duncan) of a certain age; and, most dramatically and conventionally, a romantic fling with a charming younger man named Marcello (Raoul Bora).
This parade of chick-flick clichés has just enough PG-13 frisson to spin it one biscotti beyond the ladies’ fare of Lifetime TV, and Diane Lane is just foxy enough to hint at something wilder while also shrugging her way through stock gestures of demure sensitivity. Her paltry resources as an actress emerge here in a behavioral literal-mindedness telegraphing bite-size emotional markers that protect the star’s allure but do almost nothing to create a credible performance of characterization.
Wells’ direction is comparably lacking in imaginative invention and subtlety, and her blunt-edged, TV-style staging of the most intimate and best-written scenes goes hand-in-hand with the failure to treat the Tuscan settings in any but the most cursory and superficial terms.