Under the Tuscan Sun: In Praise of Diane Lane

Radiant star turn gives chick flicks a good name.

THE CHICK flick has gotten a bad name of late, what with My Big Fat Greek Wedding's minor-league affability getting blown out of all proportion and Reese Witherspoon recklessly whoring her top-drawer charms for bottom-drawer fodder. Michelle Pfeiffer seems permanently lost in Oprah territory, and you can hardly go near Ashley Judd these days without stepping in something. Imagine how refreshing it is, then, to encounter Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun (which opens Friday, Sept. 26, at Guild 45 and other theaters), a crowd-pleasing romance that looks like a groaner but sends its audience out invigorated and happy. As in Frances Mayes' 1996 best- selling memoir, Sun shines on a sullen, middle-aged woman who discovers the serendipity of life in the splendor of Italy. Frances (Lane) is an esteemed teacher and novelist suffering the indignity of paying alimony to her cheatin' ex-husband. Her pregnant lesbian best friend (Sandra Oh) sends her off to Italy, where she buys a villa and meets a melting pot of lovable eccentrics. Chief among these are the Polish construction workers who're uncertainly renovating her new home and a Fellini-quoting Englishwoman (Lindsay Duncan) better suited to Auntie Mame than a breezy reflection on distaff midlife crises. This kind of stuff has Lifetime Channel written all over it. But the film has a sunny infectiousness that mostly recognizes when not to get too sunny. Yes, Frances meets a gorgeous Neapolitan (Raoul Bova)don't you hope Diane Lane meets a gorgeous Neapolitan?and, yes, she helps the adorable youngest Pole (dewy Pawl Szajda) court his true love, but not all of it goes as expected. Writer- director Audrey Wells nicely avoids Nora Ephron-itis: Just when the film comes down with a case of the cutes, Wells checks herself with gentle self- effacement. When Frances, Cyrano-like, composes postcard greetings for an overwhelmed traveler, her poetic voice-over accompanies a quaint montage of village scenery and romantic vistas; the idyllic reverie ruptures with the tourist carping that his mother will never believe he wrote this stuff. There isn't a wrong note in the entire cast: Duncan (Mansfield Park) tries her best in a superfluous role, and welcome Canadian import Oh, in particular, has the heft and spirit of a real person. But it's Lane's movie, a quietly wry tour de force. Her mercurial face registers even more than in that great tumultuous postcoital railroad close-up in Unfaithful. This is an actress in full bloomall of the devotion we've given her since her winsome 1979 teenage debut in A Little Romance is paid off in spades. This is a Big Romance, and she earns it. swiecking@seattleweekly.com

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