Picks and Pans Review: Under the Tuscan Sun

updated 10/06/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Diane Lane, Raoul Bova, Sandra Oh, Vincent Riotta, Lindsay Duncan

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Do not see this one on an empty stomach, because that would be too trying during the constant parade of loving close-ups showing heaping platters of pasta, crusty loaves of bread and free-flowing ruby wine. Better to savor all of this savvy comedy about a divorced American woman building a new life for herself while restoring a crumbling villa in Italy than to expire of hunger pangs halfway through.

Under the Tuscan Sun is loosely adapted from the bestselling 1996 memoir of the same name by Frances Mayes. In her scripts for such earlier films as The Truth About Cats and Dogs and The Kid, writer-director Audrey Wells (Guinevere) demonstrated a knack for injecting wistful heart and knowing humor into commercial material. She delivers the same here. Using Mayes's passion for Italy and cooking as a base, Wells whips up an appealing, partly fictionalized story about a recently divorced professor and writer named Frances (Lane), who while vacationing in Italy impulsively buys a rattletrap house in Tuscany and begins renovations. Along the way our heroine makes friends, takes on a lover (Bova) and learns life is about risk.

It's standard enough stuff, but between a charming and committed performance by Lane, splendid scenery (shot on location in Cortona, Positano, Rome and Florence) and a realistic—for a big studio movie—view that there's often bitter mixed in with the sweet, this Tuscany earns its place in the sun. Finally, a word of praise for Oh (HBO's Arliss), who portrays Frances's best friend, a wisecracking, pregnant lesbian. One could happily watch this actress if she were simply breaking eggs; like a rubber band, she brings snap to her every scene. (PG-13)

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