Based on the novel by the same name, Under the Tuscan Sun makes some significant departures from its source material. The setting is the same: a run-down villa in the Tuscan region of Italy, but the main character is fundamentally different.
Frances Mayes retains her profession as a writer and professor living in San Francsico, but loses her husband. In the film, Frances learns early on that her husband has been cheating on her and instigates a messy divorce. Frances' friends send her on a tour of Italy to cheer her up and it is there she discovers the villa Bramasole. Feeling she has nothing to return to in San Francisco, Frances purchases the ramshackle house and promises to restore it to its original beauty. Ah, metaphor.
Frances soon learns that things work differently in Italy. Though one of the contractors promises he can complete the work in one month, her real estate advisor suggests that this is impossible and she should pick the man who's mother will berate him if the job is not done right. Over the course of the reconstruction, Frances is introduced to new and fascinating people including three Polish laborers, a British ex-pat obsessed with Fellini, and many flirtatious Italian men.
Where the book Under the Tuscan Sun is a colorful account of remodeling, gardening and cooking in Italy (complete with recipes), the film is really more of a fairy tale complete with hokey love stories. What's really disappointing is, the Italian setting of the film is incidental compared with the Mayes' vibrant description of Italian life in her book. Some of my favorite passages were missing from the film including: how olive oil is made, the markets and festivals of Cortona, and Frances' funny neighbors. Screenwriter and director Audrey Wells has done a satisfactory job of adapting the book into the stuff of movie melodrama but she distilled out too much of the original flavor.
If you pretend Under the Tuscan Sun the book never existed, Under the Tuscan Sun can be seen as a slightly-better-than-average romantic comedy. With the exception of some really cheesy allegories about ladybugs and trains through the Alps, the film is well- written, and the film is capably delivered by a fun and energetic group of actors.
Diane Lane is charming as the emotional but determined Frances. Lane maintains a perfect balance of goofball and glamour and firmly plants herself in the romantic comedy ranks of Diane Keaton and Julia Roberts. Sandra Oh delivers some of the best dialogue this year as Frances' socialite friend Patty, and Vincent Riotta is imminently charming as Frances' advisor, Senor Martini.
Writer/ director Audrey Wells (Truth About Cats and Dogs, Guinevere) had a significant challenge in the making of this film. Not only did she make significant changes to a well-loved book, but she had to do her Italian film shoot during the not-so-sunny months of November and December. Given these circumstances, Under the Tuscan Sun is a good but imperfect effort thanks mostly to the talents of her cast.
-Megan A. Denny