There’s a blissful punch line to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), after Pee-wee Herman sells the story of his life to Warner Bros. and then goes to see the movie: He’s played by James Brolin, his girlfriend is Morgan Fairchild, his 10-speed bike is a motorcycle, and he’s fighting off ninja warriors. The Disney version of Frances Mayes’ best-selling memoir Under the Tuscan Sun (Touchstone) isn’t quite that absurd, but I’d love to have seen Mayes’ face when she first got a look at the scene where Diane Lane, as the freshly jilted Frances, leaps off a tour bus in Cortona to bid impulsively on a 300-year-old house called Bramisole. In real life, it took years for Mayes—and her boyfriend, a muscular poet named Ed—to find a place, and months more to make up their minds. And what did Mayes think when she watched her cinematic self romping beside the sea with a hunka burnin’ Italian love and then leaping around in her lingerie chanting, “I’ve still got it!”?
Probably she thought about what she could do to that 300-year-old house with all that Hollywood money.
All right, I admit it, the action of the book wouldn’t make much of a movie: It’s a poetic meditation on finding oneself through cultural dislocation and manual labor, with breaks for side trips into Etruscan archeology and recipe interludes. It’s not a lark, either: Mayes’ writing is prickly, and some of her descriptions feel fussed-over. But I have a soft spot for the book. I read it long before it was a best seller, on my honeymoon in Tuscany—in Cortona, in fact. One day, the wife and I accidentally stumbled on Bramisole and got a glimpse of the muscular poet trimming hedges and the author on her stoop: I wanted to yell, “Great book! Can we move in?” I’ve wondered in the intervening seven years if tens of thousands of people haven’t descended on the place and turned this idyllic refuge into a gawkers’ hell.
They certainly will now, because the Disney adaptation, written and directed by Audrey Wells, will be a huge hit. It’s a star vehicle for the marvelous Diane Lane, who recycles her babe-ilicious married-woman-rediscovers-her-sexuality turns in A Walk on the Moon (1999) and Unfaithful (2002), with a lot of added mugging. The early part of the film is like a slicker version of Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978). In San Francisco, book critic Frances gets the news from someone whose novel she panned that her husband is having an affair; then, thanks to California’s no-fault divorce laws, she has to sell her house to her adulterous spouse and his new bride. After a stint in a furnished-apartment-building apartment with other suddenly singles who can be heard wailing through the walls, two lesbian friends give her the gift of a tour of Tuscany. And the rest is history—or, this being a “chick flick,” herstory.
Wells’ first shots of the curly roads on that hilly Tuscan countryside are magical—much like the verdant landscape itself. You think, “I want a house there!” The Cortona piazza is presented as a buoyant circus, Fellini without the grotesquerie. But Frances is desperately alone in her 300-year-old fixer-upper. She weeps to her sympathetic Italian realtor that she has nothing to fill those bedrooms with, that she has bought a house for a life she doesn’t have. On cue, the realtor tells her about a railroad line built over the Alps at a time when no train could make the trip: The builders had faith that the train would someday be designed—just as Frances must have faith that her house will be filled. And so Under the Tuscan Sun becomes a female Field of Dreams (1989): If you restore it, they will come.
They do, too: Italians, Polish laborers, the newly abandoned lesbian friend (Sandra Oh) from San Francisco and her unborn child. Everyone comes to Bramisole to eat Frances’ cooking and bask in her maternal radiance. She even pleads the case for the marriage of an Italian girl and a Polish worker to the girl’s horrified parents. The picture practically ends with a fertility dance—Frances’ harvest of love. In Mayes’ book, the torturous work on Bramisole leads her back in time and closer to communion with her new culture. But the film’s restoration goes more or less swimmingly: After a few comic disasters, it’s time for the cheerful montages featuring lovable workmen. Under the Tuscan Sun is fun early on for the tension between romance and reality, between the gorgeous eternal countryside and the entropy of old houses and inconstancy of human nature. But when everything falls into place, the movie’s spine softens. And by the way: What do these people do for money?
The most fascinating thing about Under the Tuscan Sun is what it says about the evolution of our escapist fantasies. Once they were about getting out from under domestic obligations; now they’re about getting into them, preferably with acreage, vistas, and lots and lots of guest rooms. The movie is sweet but deeply suspect: It’s like Lost Horizon re-imagined by a realtor.