Lane Shines Brightly In 'Under the Tuscan Sun'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2003

"UNDER the Tuscan Sun" is a Mr. Right fantasy set amid groves of olive trees and similarly thick accumulations of handsome Italian men. But thanks to witty writing and direction by Audrey Wells (who freely adapted and fictionalized Frances Mayes's reminiscence "Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy"), the cliches are obscured by the sheer fun of it all.

The ones who are predisposed to enjoy this, you know who you are. I can see you in line already. But there are many, I dare say, who will be pleasantly surprised. For one thing, Diane Lane makes this more than a Venus flick.

She's Frances, an attractive, 35-year-old woman recovering from a heartbreak of a divorce who agrees to take a guided tour of Tuscany. It's a gay tour, by the way. She got the freebie from her lesbian friend Patti (Sandra Oh), who suddenly couldn't go on the trip herself because she's pregnant.

Well, we pretty much know where this story is going. This corner of Italy, as we have learned from countless movies, is where English eccentrics or culturally virginal Americans come to restore themselves, courtesy of some blue-eyed stud-muffin in Gucci loafers, or some swain in the vineyard who knows how to treat a woman. The transformation will include time spent in one of the world's most gorgeous places, full of rugged tables bedecked with hearty wine and good pasta.

And so what? Bring it on, girlfriend. Frances falls in love with a somewhat dilapidated but beautiful villa, which she impulsively buys. She hires a benevolent Italian foreman and a clutch of sweet-natured Polish men to break down walls and transform the garden. (From here on, every man in the movie will be engaged in a semiconscious contest of adorable endearment. Love it or hate it, this is also part of the territory.) And while her laborers are working on her dream home to be, Frances does something about filling that house with a new man. Meeting Marcello (Raoul Bova), whose eyes are so blue they should probably be outlawed, she embarks on the real adventure her heart has been seeking.

As Frances, Lane has a matter-of-fact charm. She's courageous, entirely willing to take the plunge whenever such a dive is offered. There's something heroic about that; she's not busting heads or saving the world, but she's breaking the boundaries of her previous life. That's powerful business, as far as many people are concerned. It is a glorious refreshment to spend time with characters who aren't twenty-something eye bait, someone's virtuous, whiny wife or other reductive archetypes. It's not just Frances who gets this movie's indulgent attention, by the way. Patti, who comes to visit Frances with her stomach out to here, is also full of zest and needs no one else to tell her who she is, or what she wants. These are two women pursuing happiness -- as they define it. And while it could be debated that they are mere pawns in a collective, cliched chick fantasy, they are also flag-bearers of an easygoing liberation.

UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN (PG-13, 111 minutes) -- Contains sexual situations and some obscenity. Area theaters.

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