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With: Diane Lane, Sandra Oh, Raoul Bova, Lindsay Duncan
Written by: Audrey Wells, based on the novel by Frances Mayes
Directed by: Audrey Wells
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and language
Running Time: 113
Date: 09/20/2003

Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

A Place in the 'Sun'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Set in an Italy where sexy blondes regularly re-create scenes from Fellini movies, Under the Tuscan Sun offers Americans the ultimate fantasy vacation. It's a beautiful, sunny, fresh air trip to Europe without the jet lag, language problems, money problems, or any other trivialities. Indeed, the movie wants to believe that Italians know best how to live life and that simply moving to Tuscany could make us all happy.

In the film, San Francisco writer Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) divorces her (unseen) cheating husband. To help her adjust and heal, her best friends give her a trip to Tuscany. Once there, she notices an old villa for sale, and -- following a few signs from above -- buys it using the settlement from her divorce.

Before long, the lonely Frances finds herself surrounded by an odd assortment of characters, from a crew of Polish laborers to a kindly salt-and-pepper haired real estate agent,to an owl.

Other storylines include an aging blonde goddess (Lindsay Duncan) teaching Frances a thing or two about loosening up, a young Polish worker (Pawel Szadja) falling for a beautiful young Italian woman (Giulia Steigerwalt) and Frances' best friend Patti (Sandra Oh) turning up pregnant.

Refreshingly, Under the Tuscan Sun doesn't bother to tie these threads together. Like our fantasy Italians who love life so much, it simply relaxes and takes them in bits and pieces, each one in its own time. Moreover, it doesn't fall back on formula romance or brain-dead slapstick humor, as the preview trailer indicates. On the contrary, only the film's clumsy, obvious final five minutes upset its delicate balance. The rest is pure bliss.

Following up her fearless performance in Unfaithful, the endearing Lane makes a perfect Frances, one of the few "low-maintenance" Hollywood stars who looks like a real person, and yet stunning at the same time. Director Audrey Wells (Guinevere) shows Frances occasionally looking sad and haggard, perhaps a bit blotchy after a good cry, but crisp and lovely at other times.

To emphasize her life-affirming beauty, the film uses outside forces. At one point, a character pleads with her to stop being so sad or he will have to make love to her -- he's never been unfaithful to his wife, so she must help him. Another character simply clutches his heart or openly weeps every time he sees her. Lane makes a wonderful kind of gasping/laughing noise from time to time as if she can't quite believe how delightful it all is, or perhaps she's learning how to breathe all over again. Through this performance she gently coaxes us in and allows us to taste the Tuscan air.

And though the clever character actress Oh (The Red Violin, The Princess Diaries) gets stuck with the "best friend" role, she gives it an extra wink and lots of class; it may be her best performance so far.

Cynics who resist are missing the point, but relaxing and going with the flow makes for a truly warm and wonderful experience. If one of the functions of movies is to take us away for two hours, Under the Tuscan Sun succeeds gloriously.

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