Mayes' 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 that eventually did for the picturesque Tuscan town of Cortona what Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence did a few years earlier for the southern French towns of Aix and Avignon -- provoke a full-scale invasion by armies of U.S. tourists eager to immerse themselves in the local color (and local cuisine) the two authors describe so artfully. Neither place is likely to recover from the onslaught anytime soon.
The tricked-up movie labeled Under the Tuscan Sun does great violence to Mayes' delicate book, but that may not be its most deleterious effect. If the poor Tuscans thought they'd experienced the full force of camera-clicking, Bermuda-shorted Americanos two or three summers back, they'll likely find otherwise once the dewy-eyed masses exit the multiplex and start haranguing their travel agents for bargain fares to Florence.
As reinvented, if you can call it that, by writer/director Audrey Wells (Guinevere), Frances Mayes (bland Diane Lane) is now an unhappy San Francisco writer suffering through a soul-killing divorce from an unfaithful husband. When the fictional Frances' best friend, Patti (Sandra Oh), gives her a tour package to Italy, she reluctantly gets on the plane with a colorful array of gay tourists. "This is no time to be a chickenshit," Patti advises, and that's evidently how Wells feels, too. Ripping Mayes' 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' book. It reduces the Italians in Frances' orbit (along with a trio of Polish workmen) to the crudest sort of caricatures, while banging 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. One observer at the press screening said it perfectly: "Tuscany is the only redeeming character in the movie; it's a travesty to treat such a beautiful place so badly."
Meanwhile, Lane's fraudulent Frances impulsively buys a wrecked 300-year-old villa 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, Romeo and Juliet style, with a pretty Italian girl. Frances dutifully studies the free-spirited ways of an adventurous older woman called Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), who combines all the clichés about aging seductresses. By the time her salt-of-the-earth workmen have driven all the pigeons out of the house and got the electricity working, our heroine has also found time to fall in love with a predictably handsome dreamboat named Marcello (Raoul Bova), who immediately spirits her off to Positano in his Alfa Romeo convertible, gives her little flutes of limoncello to drink, and starts telling her how he would like to go swimming inside her beautiful eyes. In an instant, Frances becomes Marcello's beloved "Francesca."
But you know Italian men. Two plot twists later, 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. The 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. But the former San Francisco State professor may be 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, Bella Tuscany and In Tuscany, 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.