The dumbed-down movie version of Frances Mayes's best-selling travel memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun, is a virtual case study of Hollywood's irrepressible urge to lower the bar in the hopes of upping the take.
Mayes's 1996 book is a nicely written, carefully observed meditation on buying a decrepit Italian villa with her husband, fellow writer Ed Mayes, fixing the old place up, and joining the daily pageant of Italian country life. It's a quirky, admirably personal piece of writing.
The tricked-up movie labeled Under the Tuscan Sun does great violence to Mayes's delicate book. As reinvented, if you can call it that, by a writer-director named Audrey Wells (Guinevere), Frances Mayes (bland Diane Lane) is now an unhappy San Francisco writer who is suffering through a soul-killing divorce from an unfaithful husband. When the fictional Frances's best friend, Patti (Sandra Oh), gives her a tour package to Italy, she reluctantly gets on the plane. "This is no time to be a chickenshit," Patti advises, and that's evidently how Wells feels, too. Ripping Mayes's poetic fabric asunder, she blunders on in the effort to make what she presumes to call "an ecstatic movie about heartbreak." It's crammed with a lot of the usual and useful chick-flick elements -- a wounded but plucky heroine, a bittersweet tone, and the promise of renewal -- but it's been stripped of the keen intelligence that energized Mayes's book, and it bangs away at our emotions with the subtlety of a drunken dockworker trying to play the violin. Except for a few startling views of the rolling green hills and a field of scarlet flowers, even lovely Tuscany itself is relegated to minor status.
Meanwhile, Lane's fraudulent Frances impulsively buys a wrecked 300-year-old villa of her own and undertakes a huge renovation project that reflects -- what else? -- the restoration of her own shattered heart. While sheets of plaster are falling scenically on her head, she learns to pick olives and drink the local wine, gets advice for the lovelorn from a stock charming Italian named Martini (Vincent Riotta), and befriends an unhappy Polish teenager (Pawel Szajda) who's fallen in love with a pretty Italian girl. Eventually, our none-too-fascinating American expat manages to find real fairy-tale contentment among the ubiquitous sunflowers and platters of pasta carbonara -- via someone else's wedding, the birth of someone else's baby, and, yes, true love for herself. The old house even looks pretty good. Water spigot now works.
If we can believe the studio publicity machine, author Mayes has no complaints about the "fictional dramatization" her book has undergone en route to the screen. In fact, she is said to approve. Maybe she's just too busy these days to notice what's befallen her literary efforts. The franchise Mayes has built up in the last seven years includes two more books (both inferior to the original) and a line of American-made furniture called "At Home in Tuscany," probably aimed at those who will never make the trip.