Uneasy reworking of bestseller shows just how far Lane can carry a flawed pic. Thesp transforms this seriocomic saga of a devastated divorcee who purchases a Tuscan villa into a spellbinding display of emotional transparency. Remains to be seen whether target auds will buy a chick flick with plenty of gioia di vivere, but little believable romance.

A generic hybrid somewhere between “Roman Holiday” and “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,” Audrey Wells’ uneasy reworking of Frances Mayes’ bestseller shows just how far Diane Lane can carry a flawed picture. Lane transforms this seriocomic saga of a devastated American divorcee who impulsively purchases a Tuscan villa, thereby changing her life, into a spellbinding display of emotional transparency. Set to open Sept. 26, it remains to be seen whether target femme auds will buy a chick flick with plenty of gioia di vivere, Italian flora and fauna, but little in the way of believable romance.

Pic begins in San Francisco, where Frances (Lane), a successful but artistically blocked writer-book reviewer, lives surrounded by friends and colleagues. A cryptic comment about her absent husband, delivered by a novelist whose book she once trashed, leads to a lawyertelling a shell-shocked Frances she’ll have to pay alimony to the man she supported — while he was having an affair with a woman poised to move into her house.

Convinced by best friend Patti (Sandra Oh) that she’ll wind up an empty shell if she doesn’t do something, Lane accepts Oh’s gift of a ticket to Tuscany.

Wells establishes a bright and breezy comic tone that underscores both the poignancy of Lane’s suffering and her need, reiterated by everyone she encounters, to get over it. The divorce setup comes from Wells, while the droll misadventures of renovating a rundown Italian villa are largely based on Mayes’ book (whose autobiographical heroine was a happily married woman).

The two story strands mesh surprisingly smoothly, Wells contrasting the lonely glass and steel towers of San Francisco with the lush countryside and quaint architecture of Tuscany.

Similarly, the rueful ironies of urban divorce glide seamlessly into the more farcical travails of rural reconstruction: Set-pieces include a wall targeted for demolition that collapses prematurely amid ominous rumblings and huge clouds of dust, and a hilarious night alone spend by Lane in the unrefurbished structure during a spectacular thunderstorm.

A parade of improbable contractors leads to the hiring of a crew of displaced Polish workmen. Slowly, Frances starts to get involved with the people around her, cooking feasts for the neighbors and workers, and helping the youngest Polish handyman, Pawel, in his love affair with the girl next door.

A very pregnant Sandra Oh, whose lesbian lover has deserted her, soon joins the clan. Frances also develops a deep but platonic friendship with already-married real estate agent Martini (Vincent Riotta). Indeed, the powerful unconsummated chemistry between Riotta and Lane anchors the film, making believable Frances’ ultimate epiphany and acceptance of an alternative extended family.

To aid her in that final realization, Wells gives Frances a lover, Marcello (Raoul Bova), and an affair that doesn’t click. But instead of planting the seeds of discontent within the couple itself, Wells opts to sabotage the love story in its telling — with atrociously coy meetings, strained dialogue and unexplained difficulties. Pic almost doesn’t survive this descent into ham-handed, blatantly inauthentic romance.

On the other hand, the amazingly exuberant reaction of Lane when she returns from her first assignation with Marcello, drumming her heels on the bed with glee and flinging herself around the room exulting “I still got it!” is a joy to behold.

Lane — who’s chalked a strong track record working with femme helmers — has continually matured as an artist since her little-seen breakthrough perfs in Karen Arthur’s “Lady Beware” and Stacy Cochran’s “My New Gun.” Here, under Wells, she’s at the height of her powers. Though not as intense as her tour-de-force roles in “A Walk on the Moon” and “Unfaithful,” “Sun” provides a challenging change-of-pace. Tech credits are fine, particularly Stephen McCabe’s impressively understated production design.

Under the Tuscan Sun

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Timnick Films/Blue Gardenia production. Produced by Tom Sternberg, Audrey Wells. Executive producers, Laura Fattori, Sandy Kroopf, Mark Gill. Directed, written by Audrey Wells, screen story by Wells, based on the book by Frances Mayes.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Geoffrey Simpson; editors, Andrew Marcus, Arthur Coburn; music, Christophe Beck; production designer, Stephen McCabe; art directors, Giovanni Giovagnoni, Gianfranco Fumagalli; set decorators, Nick Evans (American sets), Cinzia Sleiter; costume designer, Nicolette Ercole; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Clive Winter; supervising sound editors, Aaron Glascock, Curt Schulkey; associate producers, Edoardo Petti, Jon Goldman, Kate Dimento; assistant director, Alberto Mangiante; second unit camera, John Radzik, Gianni Fiore Coltellacci; casting, Linda Lowy, John Brace (U.S.), Beatrice Kruger (Italy). Reviewed at the AMC Empire, New York, Sept. 13, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 113 MINS.

With

Frances - Diane Lane Patti - Sandra Oh Katherine - Lindsay Duncan Marcello - Raoul Bova Martini - Vincent Riotta Chaira - Guilia Steigerwalt Pawel - Pawel Szajda

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