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(2003) (Diane Lane, Sandra Oh) (PG-13)

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Romantic Comedy: A recent American divorcée ends up buying an old villa that she starts to rebuild, along with her life, when she visits Tuscany.
Frances Mayes (DIANE LANE) is a 35-year-old San Francisco writer and literary critic who's just learned that her husband wants a divorce and alimony that will force her to give up her half of the house. Sensing her depression, Frances' pregnant lesbian friend, Patti (SANDRA OH) and her lover decide to give her their travel package for a tour of Tuscany, Italy.

Frances initially doesn't want to go, but eventually decides to. While on a bus tour near Cortona, she sees that an old villa is for sale. Acting on a whim and a bit of fate, she decides to purchase the 300-year-old place and meets realtor Mr. Martini (VINCENT RIOTTA) in the process. With the place needing some heavy duty renovations, he helps her hire a local contractor and his crew of Polish workers, including Pawel (PAWEL SZADJA), who's sweet on a local girl, Chiara (GIULIA STEIGERWALT).

As that occurs, Frances gets to know other locals, including the flamboyant Brit Katherine (LINDSAY DUNCAN) who was discovered as a child by Federico Fellini, and Roman businessman Marcello (RAOUL BOVA) with whom she has a bring fling that reinvigorates her. As she sets out to rebuild her new home, she unknowingly begins to rebuild her life and find happiness under the Tuscan sun.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Generations ago, travel abroad was generally limited to business flyers and wealthy vacationers. Accordingly, those who wanted a taste of such travel were relegated to doing so - vicariously - through novels and movies where they'd follow the exploits of tourists, spies and others in foreign lands. Nowadays, with a higher percentage of travelers, the allure of James Bond films and romance novels in showcasing overseas destinations has been diminished.

That said, "Under the Tuscan Sun," the novel and now movie could get people desirous of a trip to Italy and should please less discerning fans of "chick flick" style material. That's not meant to imply, however, that it's a particularly good film, although it does have its moments. And it certainly benefits from the alluring presence of Diane Lane - who looks more radiant in each subsequent film - in the lead role.

Featuring the exploits of an American expatriate who buys a Tuscan villa following her divorce, the work is based on Frances Mayes' 1997 best-selling novel "Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home In Italy." Although I'm not intimately familiar with that literary work, I've learned that certain elements have been modified in moving the story from page to screen.

While some seem to make sense, I can't attest whether such modifications help or hinder the effort as a whole. That said, making the protagonist a divorcée certainly would seem to add some additional depth to the character. I can say, however, that this is yet another cinematic adaptation that feels as if the story probably worked better in novel form.

Something of a lighthearted and whimsical yet occasionally poignant romantic comedy, the effort is episodic, features sporadic and contrived voice over narration and dialogue, and more than its fair share of philosophical advice, sayings and symbolism.

In various ways, it also feels a great deal like the film "Chocolat" in both tone and approach where an outsider arrives in town and has various encounters with the locals. Rather than the symbolism of the chocolate shop in that film, though, it's the purchased dilapidated villa that serves that purpose.

Like Frances, the manor is in disarray but is resilient and will be refurbished with some tender loving care. It isn't quite as blatant or obnoxious as it might sound, but the parallels (between house and life) will be obvious to all but the less discerning of viewers.

All of the various bits of philosophical advice, however, begin to wear thin after the fourth or fifth moment of metaphorical dialogue. I realize the film is playing to its Hallmark loving target audience, but methinks some of the effort of dreaming up life-affirming dialogue should have been put into creating a more cohesive or even plot.

That said, the film certainly looks terrific. Like "Lost in Translation," it's likely to have some viewers longing for or at least contemplating a trip to the land in which the story is set. Tech credits are top-notch and everything appropriately looks quite dreamy.

Speaking of which, Lane ("Unfaithful," "The Perfect Storm") proves once again that she's not only one of the more beautiful actresses working today, but also one of the finest. Notwithstanding a few forced bits of purposeful comedic overacting, she effortlessly allows the viewer to connect with what she's feeling and that goes a long way in balancing some of the film's more glaring faults and problems.

Like "Chocolat," this effort contains an eclectic array of supporting characters. Sandra Oh ("Bean," "Guinevere") plays the protagonist's pregnant lesbian friend who's just been dumped and joins in her Tuscany, while Lindsay Duncan ("Mansfield Park," "An Ideal Husband") has fun playing a British expatriate whose head is still in the clouds regarding her touch with filmmaking fame long ago.

Raoul Bova ("La Finestra di Fronte," "Avenging Angelo") and Vincent Riotta ("Heaven," "Captain Corelli's Mandolin") decently embody varying stereotypes of Italian romantic men, while Pawel Szadja (making his debut) and Giulia Steigerwalt ("The Corridor," "The Last Kiss") play star-crossed lovers of sorts.

Little of that adds much more than additional flavor to the overall effort, but "chick flick" fans will probably find all of it quite tasty. With some decent moments of humor, wonderful photography and a terrific and engaging performance by Lane, I certainly felt that way about parts of it. It's just too bad that the feeling isn't consistent from start to finish.

If not for Lane's presence and the obvious higher than TV budget, this probably would have been one of those happy/weeping self-affirmation flicks that is better suited for the Oxygen channel or its likes rather than the big screen. While it has its moments, "Under the Tuscan Sun" has enough faults to only rate as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 28, 2003 / Posted September 26, 2003

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