I discovered not long ago that you could pull up profiles of RottenTomatoes.com reviewers and see samples of each has rated as best and worst, and through a process of mystical divination or mathematics, the percentage of times a critic is in accord with his fellow reviewers on the “Tomatometer.” On average, I agree with the meter 77 percent of the time, which is about average, and puts me in the same percentile as Roger Ebert (though often not for the same films). Checking a few other high-profile critics, I found (on the high end) that Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers agrees with the meter 82 percent of the time (I suspect him of trying to curry favor), and (on the low end) that Slate‘s David Edelstein clocks in at 64 percent (which is either sheer contrariness or a need to remind us that he used to be with the Village Voice). What’s perhaps more interesting though, is seeing where critics part company — in my case, I discovered that I like two genres more than the majority of reviewers: horror films and romantic comedies.
So with that in mind, it’s not surprising that I liked Under the Tuscan Sun — an agreeable souffle of a movie with Diane Lane (who was suddenly boosted to stardom by the fairly awful Unfaithful). What is surprising is that I didn’t love it.
There’s a great deal of apparent reverence surrounding writer/director Audrey Wells that I don’t quite understand (surely, it can’t be based on her scripts for George of the Jungle and Disney’s The Kid), but she certainly did a credible job in scripting Tuscan Sun. And she certainly has a wonderful instrument in Diane Lane, not to mention a fine supporting cast, especially Lindsay Duncan (Mansfield Park) as an outrageous English expatriate living in the village where Lane’s character buys her “dream” villa.
The script is very shrewdly contrived (in a good sense) to bring Lane’s Frances Mayes (based on the real Frances Mayes, who wrote the source book) to her new chance at life in Italy. It all starts when book reviewer Frances meets someone whose work she once trashed (the fear of every critic). The fellow takes delight in hinting that all is not well between Frances and her husband, and Frances soon learns the whole truth: Her husband has taken up with another woman and not only wants a divorce, but alimony.
The movie is a little sketchy on the financial side of things, since Frances seems to have an endless supply of money (mostly through a wise real-estate investment), despite claiming that she barely supports herself as a book reviewer (that part is too believable). But I’d feel better about all this if she ever once hinted at running out of money to refurbish the villa she impulsively buys when her friends parcel her off on a Tuscan holiday (on a gay bus tour, no less).
Tuscan Sun moves along with brisk determination as it introduces its many (perhaps too many) characters, but it really falls down for me as concerns the villa. Though the house is central to the story, I never got any real sense of it, because Wells presents it in just too many unconnected little pieces. There’s even an extended comic scene involving an apparent disaster when Frances and her Polish work crew take down a wall, but the payoff is missing; we never exactly what happened next. Similarly, there are a few points in the film where Frances seems more spoiled than sympathetic (notably when she has emotional outbursts), and her tryst with a local lothario (Raoul Bova) is just a bit too much straight out of a movie to ring true. There’s also a “young love” subplot that I could have done without.
However, Wells offers us a lot of good stuff along the way. Frances’ brief stay at an efficiency-apartment complex catering to people going through divorces (“You’re a writer — you can help the other tenants with their suicide notes,” beams the manager) is pointed and richly comic. Lindsay Duncan steals every scene she’s in, and for her efforts is afforded a great vignette of her own that evokes Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and its famous fountain scene — a moment that truly rings the gong as it quietly illustrates the gap between movies and reality. The manner in which Frances gets all her wishes without realizing she has gotten them is beautifully unforced, and it’s a nice statement on how our expectations often blind us to the truth right in front of our faces.
Wells’ real strength as a writer and a director is her uncanny ability to be warm without toppling over into the warm and fuzzy — a rare gift. Her film isn’t a great one, but it’s still pretty good — and judging by the crowd that turned out for its sneak preview, I’d say that whatever Tuscan Sun‘s shortcomings, the director’s got a hit on her hands — and Diane Lane is now a full-fledged movie star.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke