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Friday, September 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

It's pretty, but not too hot 'Under the Tuscan Sun'

Seattle Times movie critic

It's all very well for a movie to leave a few loose ends dangling, but "Under the Tuscan Sun" features such a whopper, it inspires a whole new rule of filmmaking, namely: If a Snake Enters the House, It Must Exit.

Frances (Diane Lane), a newly divorced woman beginning a new life in Tuscany, is shown clipping some picturesque vines when a massive snake (bearing, perhaps, a vague resemblance to her ex-husband) slithers out of the shrubbery and enters Frances' villa through an open window. Though some perfunctory searching for it is shown — mostly as a cover for Frances to make a halfhearted pass at the handsome Italian neighbor who helps her search — the snake is quickly forgotten and never mentioned again.

But it's always there in my mind — lurking behind the sofa cushions? coiled in a drawer? — and the proceedings take on a whole different light because of it. When Frances acquires a sweet-faced kitten, is some horrific violence about to occur? Will the arrival of Frances' pregnant best friend (Sandra Oh) be sufficient to charm the snake from its lair? And who does the snake signify, really — the nasty ex who demanded alimony? The Italian lover of questionable intent? The villa's unreliable and occasionally malevolent plumbing?

Movie review


**½
"Under the Tuscan Sun," with Diane Lane, Sandra Oh, Vincent Riotta, Raoul Bova, Lindsay Duncan. Written and directed by Audrey Wells, based on the book by Frances Mayes. 113 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sexual content and language. Several theaters.

Sometimes it doesn't take much to derail a movie, especially when there isn't much substance there to begin with. Audrey Wells' adaptation of Frances Mayes' popular memoir is full of pretty pictures; the sparkling blue water and painterly landscapes of Italy provide a sunny, uncomplicated pleasure. And the actors, particularly Lane and Oh (whose Hollywood stock should be rising after this nicely sardonic turn), are charm personified.

But those who've read the book may be a little perplexed. An ode to the sensual delights of Italy, Mayes' congenial best-seller described her experiences buying a run-down villa with her companion (later her husband) and then living a dual life, divided between San Francisco and Italy. The book lovingly described the sunlight, the wine, the food (with a delicious lemon-chicken recipe, as I recall) and other pleasures, in a tone that undoubtedly inspired numerous Italian vacations.

But books and movies are different, as we all know, and certainly the book contained little of the storytelling arc — not to mention the angst — that movies depend on. So here we have a newly divorced Frances heading to Italy alone, buying a crumbling villa seemingly on a whim, and never returning. By herself, she bravely faces an array of contractors (many of whom look like Robin Williams in his "Moscow on the Hudson" period), finds new friends and hopes to love again.

Despite the formulaic plot, which seems to belong on the Lifetime channel, Wells has a knack for witty dialogue that keeps things moving along. But we're never quite sure what to make of Frances, who seems unusually naive for a woman her age (her relationship with Marcello, a charming Italian stud muffin, has alarm bells all over it that she doesn't seem to hear). She's a fairy-tale heroine, in a new life that never threatens.

As escapism and as winsome travelogue, "Under the Tuscan Sun" works just fine. As drama — well, the real story's hiding under a cushion somewhere, like that snake. Nothing wrong with that, but be careful where you sit down.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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