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Sweet Fiction 

by Ed Symkus

True book lovers and true film lovers will most likely always remain separate groups, even though once in a while a book and the film made out of it are equal in quality and stature -- last year's The Quiet American comes to mind. But more than nine times out of 10, a two-hour film just can't capture the mood, the passion or the intricacies of a 300-page book. And sometimes the film merely latches onto an idea or two from the book and trips off in this or that direction. Take, for instance, what Terry Gilliam did to Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or in a more extreme case, what David Cronenberg did to William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch.

And take now what writer-director Audrey Wells (Guinevere) has done to Frances Mayes' autobiographical travelogue, Under the Tuscan Sun. She hasn't simply reinvented it for the screen, she's taken the title of the book, inserted a character named Frances Mayes in it (played by Diane Lane), set most of it in Italy, put a fixer-upper of a house at the center of the story, then pretty much thrown out anything else having to do with the book.

The book was a hit, despite the fact that not much happens in it -- it's kind of a journal. Even its most ardent fans said it would be well-nigh impossible to turn into a film. But the biggest audiences for films that have come from books are those same ardent fans. And in the case of Under the Tuscan Sun, they are going to be disappointed. Yes, there's lots of stuff about house refurbishing, and lots more about the fine art of Italian eating. But there's also the other three-quarters of the film, pulled seemingly out of nowhere. Sorry, Ms. Welles, this isn't an adaptation; this is more like memoir heresy.

Here are just a few examples of events and characters in the film that came out of the imagination of Audrey Wells:

Frances goes running off to Italy to forget about the messy divorce she's just gone through (in the book, she went there with her husband). She stays there year-round, often lonely and looking for a fella, or at least someone to cook for. (In real life, she and her husband were only there in the summer; during the rest of the year, they were back in the States, where she taught and wrote book reviews.) When in Rome, she meets and has a fling with the dashing Marcello. (Who?) After she settles down at her villa, she's joined by her pregnant lesbian best friend Patti, played by the marginally talented Sandra Oh. (Nope, there was no pregnant lesbian best pal in the book.) When the youngest of the men working on her house falls for the young daughter of one of her neighbors -- he's Polish, she's Italian and her parents will never allow it -- Frances intervenes to make sure it will work. (These characters never existed.)

This might sound like a lot of nitpicking, but the film really would have been a lot more honest if it had a different title, along with a disclaimer stating that it was "partially based on" Under the Tuscan Sun. But there's a bigger problem: watching this movie is like licking a chunk of Aspartame. There are cute little episodes left and right. Difficulties with the English-Italian language barrier are oh-so-funny. A loose snake in the house makes for much mirth. When Frances begins her encounter with Marcello (Raoul Bova), they end up in silhouette in a cheesy oceanside scene.

The level of sappiness eventually becomes overwhelming. Yet in the middle of it all, a few positives stick out. When the film shifts into travelogue mode, Italy is a wonder to behold. The cameras especially like looking at huge sunflowers, whether one at a time or entire fields of them. Diane Lane is really good. When she plays happy, we believe she is very happy. When bad news comes her way, Lane demonstrates how she's knocked breathless.

But the film is just too damn pleasant, and presented in a much too breezy manner. Oh, a few things go wrong for some people, but they all get turned around in short order, and an atmosphere of unreality pervades the entire film. There's some disappointment between Frances and Marcello, but for reasons that are never explained, both of them take it remarkably well. And before you can blink, Lane takes her character from happy to terribly sad to absolutely radiant.

There's nothing wrong with an upbeat movie, but this one keeps crossing the line into a kind of happiness that approaches delirium. Fans of the book will be disappointed at the movie's distortions. Everyone else should rinse well to avoid cavities.

Publication date: 09/25/03

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