Sunny Side’s Up In Bella Tuscany

After all the dark, dreary and depressing movies I slogged my way through at the Toronto International Film Festival, I doubt if you can fully appreciate the sheer joy I felt upon returning home to Under the Tuscan Sun . The epitome of what a feel-good movie is supposed to be but rarely is, this one is beautiful to look at and life-affirming to think about, and it doesn’t have a pretentious bone in its head. It has love, optimism, restorative human values, pretty people doing positive things with their lives and the breathtaking splendor of Northern Italy. If that’s not enough, it also has Diane Lane. Who can ask for anything more?

Based on the best-seller by writer Frances Mayes, about how she chucked the stress and anxiety of a career that had hit a brick wall and started over by turning a ramshackle old Tuscan villa into a brand-new way of life, the film adaptation by writer-director Audrey Wells has vibrantly enhanced the source material with a warmth, intelligence and compassion that has won the praise of the original author and left audiences cheering. Since I didn’t read the book, I don’t know how much of the real story has been changed to serve the purposes of a feel-good movie, but the script presents Frances Mayes as a 35-year-old San Francisco book critic, shattered by sudden divorce, who loses her house in a community-property settlement. Despondent and depressed, disillusioned in love and tortured by a debilitating case of writer’s block, she is clearly at a crossroads. Since I identify completely with every problem she’s got, I leaned forward in my seat, tensed with empathy. Enter her best friend, Patti (Sandra Oh), a newly pregnant lesbian pal starting a family with her life partner, who gives Frances a 10-day trip to Northern Italy. It’s a gay bus tour, but that doesn’t prevent the exhausted, confused Frances from falling in love-with the purple hills, the terraced farms, the sunny residents of Tuscany, and the reassuring calm of a way of life unknown in the high-velocity world of Bay Area publishing. The dizzying rapture of the scenery seduces Frances so much that she finds herself staring into shop windows advertising real estate. Drawn as if by some uncontrollable magnet, she finds herself impulsively hocking her savings to buy a crumbling old villa she can’t afford called Bramasole. With the aid of a friendly realtor (Vincent Riotta), she hires a crew of Polish construction workers, and a love affair begins to grow between a lonely, lost American woman with no future and a 300-year-old house with entirely too much past. Nursing her antique money-trap through every malady of an interminable renovation, observing the customs of the town, struggling to learn the language, helping the neighbors harvest olives, Frances makes a series of new friends, including a flamboyant British actress (Lindsay Duncan) who was discovered by Fellini, a young girl who falls in love with one of the Polish workers, and an assortment of creatures-including a snake that likes the house as much as she does. The house pays her back, with a temperamental kitchen that inspires her to become a fantastic chef of Northern Italian cuisine-a new talent that provides her with unexpected material for future manuscripts. By leaving herself open and filing away the past, Frances also revives a sexual appetite she thought was dead and buried, with a lover who may possibly be the handsomest man in Italy (hunky newcomer Raoul Bova, a living magazine cover). As the seasons change from fields of sunflowers to acres of red poppies, and Frances’ landscape is punctuated by monastery bells and white doves flying from the belfry of the ancient church in the square, her new life becomes liberating and self-fulfilling and, in almost every way, a dream come true.

Maybe too much of a dream. The movie is so spectacular, and Frances’ adventures are so inspiring, that I wanted to pack a bag and head for Tuscany myself. And Diane Lane is as fresh and real as she is charming. (I shudder to think what a gummy mess Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan would have made of this film’s moment-to-moment honesty and lack of pretense.) But too much perfection can be disarming. Perhaps sensing the need to fill the sublime spaces with less observation and more narrative, director Wells fills her third act with too many plot points. Frances must play savior to the English actress when she drunkenly dances into the town fountain and re-creates her big scene from La Dolce Vita , as well as matchmaker between one of the Polish workers and the daughter of the neighbors, who refuse to permit a wedding, and midwife to gal pal Patti, who arrives from San Francisco to have her baby alone. Suddenly the film is filled with tangential characters who intrude on Diane Lane’s rich centerpiece performance when it would have been more interesting to watch her cope with each new challenge. (It is also never too clear how a writer with no income is paying for all of this.) Still, in a movie as delicious and caloric as fettuccine carbonara, who cares if there’s no salt on the table? The way Frances turns her rundown architectural albatross into a home for an extended family that forms her new future gives this film a special glow of satisfaction, and I liked her metaphor about the man who devotes years to building a train track in the middle of nowhere. No apparent reason, except he knows someday a train will come.

Everything ends almost too happily to be believed, but in Tuscany anything is possible. I even like the film’s advertising slogan: “Life offers you a thousand chances … all you have to do is take one.” A talisman to live by, if you ask me. File Under the Tuscan Sun under guilty pleasures, but I loved it unconditionally.

Canadian Surprise

There’s a different kind of courage in My Life Without Me , a sensitive, muted study of loving and dying that surprised critics in Toronto for the way it rises above the usual torpor of Canadian films. Helmed by Spanish director Isabel Coixet, it’s the kind of downer theme I’ve come to dread: a young wife and mother diagnosed with terminal cancer and how she spends her final days preparing for death. The acclaimed Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who made a memorable impact in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter , gives a delicately structured performance as a 23-year-old Vancouver woman who lives in a seedy trailer park with two kids and a sweet but underemployed husband with no ambition (the charismatic Scott Speedman). Her dad is in jail, her own cynical mom hates life, and she works as a janitor, cleaning office buildings. Now she’s suddenly faced with the news that she has less than two months to live. Without a trace of self-pitying melodrama, she realizes what it means to get your priorities straight. On a time limit, your whole life quickly looks like a dress rehearsal and you are suddenly facing your own third act. This woman, whose life is ending before she’s even old enough to realize her dreams, makes a list of things to do before her time runs out. She visits her father in jail (a strange, rabbity performance by Alfred Molina). Losing faith in her own allure, she has an affair with another man (sensitive, caring work by Mark Ruffalo) because it’s something she’s never done. Methodical and organized, she buys false fingernails, records cassettes of birthday wishes for every year of her two daughters’ lives until they reach the age of 18, and even tries to find a new wife for her husband. Above all, she does these things without telling anyone her secret. Of course, the loose ends do not tie as neatly as planned. The affair with Mr. Ruffalo turns from an experiment to real love, and there is one more broken heart to mend.

This is familiar terrain, and the great Margaret Sullavan explored it first, in the 1950 tearjerker No Sad Songs for Me . But what saves My Life Without Me from the status of a five-Kleenex weepie is the maturity of vision that permeates the writing and direction and shines through each performance. In the wrong hands, the film could have been unbearably maudlin, but Ms. Polley works diligently to eschew clichés and keep it elevated above the level of a TV movie of the week. She’s so considerate and likable you keep hoping the diagnosis will turn out to be wrong in time for a happy ending. But the filmmakers keep it honest, resisting easy solutions. As a wake-up call for people who take life for granted, the bell is loud and shattering.

Allen Goes On… and On

Anything Else is middle-rung Woody Allen, which left me not only disappointed but scratching my head, muttering, “Huh?” Jason Biggs, as a neurotic young comedy writer whose career is stalled (he turns down jobs in California if they separate him from his shrink), and Woody himself, as a neurotic old comedy writer who has spent so much time in a strait jacket he’s got a permanent reservation at Payne Whitney, seem to be mirror images of each other. The aspiring young guy, who dreams that the Cleveland Indians all got jobs at Toys “R” Us, is trapped with a tortured manager (Danny DeVito), a chain-smoking, pill-popping girlfriend (Christina Ricci, lightening up for a change in a role that is less goth than usual) and her loopy mother (Stockard Channing), who attacks middle age snorting cocaine and trying out a new cabaret act. Meanwhile, the old guy teaches the young guy a survival course in self-protection against rapists, burglars and the return of the Nazi Gestapo. None of this adds up to much of a movie; it’s more like a filmed hodgepodge of not-fully-thought-out ideas and one-liners and small shards of jaundiced polemic. The pieces of the collage never meld, because Woody seems less concerned with telling a story coherently and more interested in visually sharing notations from his Palm Pilot, dispensing discourses on firearms, quantum physics, Sophia Loren and masturbation. Some of it is funny, but not nearly funny enough. On the plus side, New York is, once again, a constantly changing movie set, photographed by the great Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji, and the music is by Lester Young, Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson. Woody Allen movies used to be 90 minutes long, and that’s what I liked about them. This one drags on for about two hours. He’s getting older: His movies should be getting shorter, not the other way around.