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Those of us of a certain age remember Diane Lane as a child actor like Jodie Foster, so mature and self-possessed that transition to adult roles seemed automatic. She was barely in her teens in 1979 when she appeared with Laurence Olivier in A Little Romance. Still in her teens, she made memorable appearances in Six Pack, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish and was just 18 when Francis Ford Coppola cast her opposite Richard Gere in The Cotton Club. But after that she faded into obscurity. While her contemporary Foster won Oscars for The Accused and Silence of the Lambs, Lane's career ebbed into 15 years of dormancy and forgettable roles. Then she suddenly reemerged in 1999's A Walk on the Moon, and last year she landed an Oscar nomination for her explosive performance as a cheating wife in the thriller Unfaithful. Now, ever-fickle Hollywood endeavors to make her a star at age 38 in Under the Tuscan Sun. Because Lane is a game, attractive and likable actor, I'd love to tell you that her "breakthrough" vehicle is one you want to see. But I can't.

Directed by Audrey Wells and very loosely adapted from Frances Mayes' memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun is the story of a New York writer who is cruelly abandoned by her philandering husband. Forced from her American home by the ugliness of a divorce settlement, this fictional Frances (Lane) relocates to Tuscany where she takes psychological refuge in the process of renovating a decaying villa. Almost immediately the picture begins to lose its grip on our emotions.

As a kind of tease, the film promises us some kind of romance. The picture has the decency to steer Frances clear of an adulterous fling with her married real estate agent (Vincent Riotta), but in hindsight we wonder why so much running time is devoted to his character. Still, the two of them at least seem to share a healthy mutual regard. The tryst that finally develops between Frances and a handsome young Italian named Marcello (Raoul Bova) generates little more heat than that of shaking hands with an attractive stranger. The picture keeps pointing at their weekend of abandon without ever convincing us either party deeply matters to the other. When Frances celebrates her sexual reawakening with a closeted series of cheers for her own appeal, we feel embarrassed that Lane is required to make her character seem so callow.

Legitimately enough, I think, Wells' reworking of Mayes' non-fiction book endeavors to suggest that women approaching middle age are not slaves to diminished romantic options. Available and attractive men may or may not present themselves, and quality life goes on in either case. I can certainly admire a picture that evidently wants to transcend ancient Hollywood formulas. The knight may truly arrive in shining armor, but that doesn't mean circumstance can't conspire to keep him from winning the fair maiden. Thus, I forthrightly concede that Under the Tuscan Sun defies certain expectations. Critically and satisfactorily, the film suggests that Frances' "problems" are not soluble by her involvement with Marcello in particular or any man in general.

But the picture's details about the obstacles that keep Frances and Marcello apart are everywhere clumsy and contrived. And in the final analysis, Under the Tuscan Sun is far more willed than earned. The picture begins to unravel with the sudden appearance of Frances' friend Patti (Sandra Oh), who is pregnant by artificial insemination and who has been recently abandoned by her lesbian domestic partner. We yearn to feel invested in the relationship between Frances and Patti, but the script provides us far too little back story. And Patti's abrupt and unannounced arrival in Italy on the eve of giving birth feels far more preposterous than convincingly desperate.

Even more frustrating, it becomes clear that we are supposed to become emotionally involved with the three Polish immigrants who provide the labor for renovating Frances' villa. They are of different ages, but they are delineated so ineptly, we can otherwise barely distinguish among them. When the laborers finish their project and announce their relocation to other enterprises, we can tell that Frances feels a sense of loss. But the picture has developed her relationship with these three men so sketchily that we feel nothing save irritated that the picture nudges us to respond in a way that we can't. Frances' relationship with Pawel (Pawel Szadja), the youngest of the Polish renovators, is particularly awkward. The film asserts a closeness that it doesn't bother to depict developing. In the end, when Pawel wants to marry a local Italian girl, Frances intervenes with her disapproving parents. We're supposed to see this sequence as Frances' climactic formation of an ersatz family, and in case we might miss the point it is stated for us explicitly. But like so much in this movie, the scene stumbles rather than glides as it plays a lot less warm fuzzy than irritating buttinsky.

click to enlarge Frances (Diane Lane) tries to find happiness during - a midlife crisis in Under the Tuscan Sun.
  • Frances (Diane Lane) tries to find happiness during a midlife crisis in Under the Tuscan Sun.


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