If it’s possible to give chick flicks a worse name than they already have, the forces behind Under the Tuscan Sun have done it. In adapting Frances Mayes’ memoir of post-divorce revitalization in Italy, Tuscan director and screenwriter Audrey Wells has reduced Mayes’ whimsy to mere simple-mindedness while running roughshod over such nuisances as narrative and continuity in the service of a higher cultural calling: cuteness. Recovering from trauma was never so adorable.
Tuscan star Diane Lane has traded down from her sordid, Oscar-nominated turn in Unfaithful to the saccharine Frances, a San Francisco critic who gets clued in to her husband’s infidelity by an author whose book Frances slammed. When Frances’ ex buys her out of their home during divorce proceedings, she leaves behind everything but her library and decamps to a dreary short-term apartment in a building her friends term “Camp Divorce.” Worried that Frances is spiraling into depression, her best friend, Patti (Sandra Oh), tries to coax her into taking a tour of Tuscany as tonicthough, because the vacation on offer was originally meant for Patti and her partner, it’s a gay tour.
Frances can spend only one more lonesome night listening to a neighboring single’s mournful wails before she has to call Patti and ask when the bus leaves. Cut to bus, with the tour leader sunnily announcing, “You are gay and away!” Up to this point, Under the Tuscan Sun has mildly surprised you with its fresh sense of cynicism about life’s winding roadsqueezing humor from the sad sacks at Camp Divorce and even performing modest self-corrections before its events veer toward Hallmark triteness. When Frances, for example, helps a fellow traveler write a postcard to his mother, we hear her flowery descriptions in voice-over and then watch him read her notes gape-mouthed before he snidely responds, “‘The grapes even smell like purple’? My mom will never believe I wrote this!”
Frances takes in a bit of the sights (more tour buses, some abbondanza farmers’ markets) before deciding on impulse to buy a dilapidated villa with her settlementan event that, because of the film’s utter lack of contextualization, could very well be occurring on the day she’s arrived. After she settles in, Tuscan falls apartleaning on sunny vistas and stolen glances from local horndogs to affirm Frances’ newfound freedom and supposed happiness. Story and character development pop up only sporadically and inevitably yield sentimentality or kookiness: A snap change in season effects Christmas merriment, and Frances’ search for contractors introduces a parade of eccentrics and should serve nicely as a pilot for This Old House: Italy.
Lane is lovely as always, and she nearly pulls off making Frances warm and likable. Wells’ screenplay, though, never develops the character’s relationships past the Harlequin-cover stage. At one point, Frances meets the dreamy Marcello (Raoul Bova) on the street while looking for an antiques shop. She allows him to spirit her away to a distant store, and after about five minutes total of dialogue she gazes into his eyes and invites herself into his bed. Then, a week or so later, Frances literally trips over herself after she spots Marcello driving through her neighborhood, calling out his name and sliding through mud to try to catch up to him like a lovesick teenager. As endearing as Lane can be (and as good as the sex might have been), Frances ultimately descends from vivacity and pathos to plain, ugly desperation.
Shockingly, Tuscan even flops as a travelogue, despite the project’s presumed appeal to Italy snobs and middlebrow tourists. Though filmed on location and undeniably sunny, the movie lacks the breathtaking lushness of such similar projects as Enchanted April and Stealing Beauty. Instead of actual scenery, Wells and cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson inexplicably opt to fill the screen with Frances’ reactions to it; and though Lane’s delicately shifting expressions bespeak her acting skill, they’re certainly not going to make anyone brave a flight on Alitalia. By the end of the film, Wells tries to relocate her target demographic by discarding narrative entirely in favor of stock mood-lifters: Kittens! Babies! Thick-accented teens in love! There’s a slim chance that Lifetime-channel zealots and Oprah-philes might leave the theater happily hoodwinked; others need not bother entering.
Woody Allen, meanwhile, continues his long-running attempt to fool audiences into believing his latest movie differs in even the slightest substantive way from anything else he’s done over the last decade and a half. Although Anything Else offers a small twist on his well-worn formulafor only the second time since Bullets Over Broadway, a male Allen lead isn’t played by the auteur himselfyou can’t sit through this genial story of love ‘n’ loss without realizing that any tweak Allen offers at this point in his career is a distinction without a difference.
With Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci cast as its central bickering urbanites, Anything Else can feel like a high-school production of Husbands and Wives. Allen does appear onscreen to proctor, playing mentor to Biggs’ floundering comedy writer and offering two navel-gazing neurotics for the price of one. Jerry Falk (Biggs) meets fellow writer David Dobel (Allen) at a pitch meeting, and after being cornered into listening to Dobel’s logorrheic theories on everything from therapy to the world’s tensions, Jerry decides to confide in him about his faltering love life. The audience learns Jerry’s story as Dobel does, in flashback: Already once married, Jerry is living with but not in love with Brooke (Kadee Strickland) when he meets his friend’s girlfriend, Amanda (Ricci), on a double date.
Naturally, Jerry is instantly taken with Amanda’s passions for Billie Holiday and kayaking through rain forests. (When Jerry says he’d be interested in such a trip, Brooke looks at him quizzically and says, “You hate mosquitoes!” “I hate malaria,” counters Jerry.) Naturally, Jerry and Amanda soon start an affair, break off their current relationships, and move in together. And naturally, trouble begins when Amanda turns out to be compulsive and frigid, although she’s allegedly just too darn adorable for Jerry to give up on her. Jerry’s inability to cut off relationships also extends to his professional life, as he stays loyal against all advice to his nutty and seemingly inept agent, Harvey (Danny DeVito).
American Pie vet Biggs stammers valiantly and is surprisingly palatable as the nihilistic, doubting Jerry, though his puppy-brown eyes and smooth face undercut his credibility: The wire-frame glasses and middle-aged facility at self-analysis hardly convince you that someone so young could already have been through the wringer of marriage and then another serious relationship. Ricci also does neurotic well, though her tinny impersonation of a high-strung princess quickly grates. And despite recurrent statements by Jerry and others about how “men go instantly crazy” over Amanda, Ricci’s wide-eyed moon-face falls well short of alluring. Ultimately, she doesn’t quite cut it as a New York cynic who makes the customary Allen reference to Sartrein this case, giving Jerry a book of his wisdom as an anniversary present.
Allen himself is better: Even though Dobel is inarguably a vanity role, his aggressiveness foils nicely against Jerry’s self-effacing uncertainty. And Dobel’s paranoia serves both comically (as when he tries to make Jerry a comrade in fear by helping him put together a disaster-survival kit, including a rifle and floating flashlight) and as a moral, his chatter distilling into a dictum about the importance of self-preservation when involved in destructive relationships. In fact, despite the overfamiliar Allen tics (credits, as always, are white-on-black accompanied by old-tyme music) and frequent lulls (a turn by Stockard Channing as Amanda’s mom is shrill and pointless), Anything Else is often surprisingly amusing and smart, scoring with witty dialogue about sex, jazz, and existentialism, not to mention the odd LOL scenesuch as a perfectly played exchange by Biggs and DeVito in which a dreaded conversation between timid client and lousy manager leads to a comically heart-clutching, rage-fueled overreaction. Fans weary of Allen’s schtick, however, shouldn’t be misled by the film’s title: If you’re still going to see Woody Allen movies, you’ve had years of warning that you shouldn’t expect anything else. CP