The film adaptation of Frances Mayes’s best-selling memoir ”Under the Tuscan Sun” feels so schematic that only the depressed Frances (Diane Lane) is surprised by the unfolding events. The story of self-discovery through which the writer and director Audrey Wells leads Frances is eminently superficial, although Ms. Wells keeps the movie going with a steady, commanding hand and casts it with an actress who can deftly downshift from serene to sodden.
Ms. Lane plays a writer who, at the outset, projects a calm and pleasant sunniness, though she is resigned to never finishing her book. Frances is attending a former student’s book signing early in the movie when she is hit with a spray of poetic justice. A writer whose book she panned in a review gives her a paralyzing comeuppance. That author recites Frances’s dismissal: she found his novel to be a juvenile indulgence of fantasies about a middle-aged man chasing young girls. Then he drops a bomb that levels her existence: ”Go ask your husband,” he says through a smirk.
This is how Frances finds out about the fact, and the nature, of her husband’s betrayal, and the muscles in her face seem to disappear when she does. All that is holding her features onto her head is her skin, which sags under the gravitational pull of misery. This is when it becomes clear that ”Sun,” which opens nationwide today, is going to ask a lot of Ms. Lane, and of the audience, because delivering an entire performance based on varying expressions of despondency is a huge demand of anyone. But this seems to be the month of actors using dislocation as a method for working out inner turmoil — first Bill Murray in ”Lost in Translation” and now Ms. Lane in ”Sun.”
Ms. Wells is wise enough to keep Frances’s sense of gallows humor in play throughout. When Frances’s husband pressures her into giving up the San Francisco home she paid for — and renovated with money borrowed from her mother — a glimmer of panic and amusement plays across her mouth. Disbelief becomes a physical force, pulling her out of despondency and inertia.
Rudderless and without her home, the humiliated Frances winds up in an apartment building filled with the emotionally walking wounded, a by-the-month purgatory for other casualties of divorce. She can hear the wails of her neighbor through the walls. Ms. Wells uses this for comic relief and to spark Frances into making a move. Frances realizes that if she stays, she will become one of the living dead in the building. (It seems to be the same building that Niles Crane was trapped in on ”Frasier.”)
When her best friend, Patti (Sandra Oh), gives Frances a ticket to Tuscany, she grabs it. Patti doesn’t want to fly because she is newly pregnant. Ms. Oh’s clear, sharp performance is the kind of work that solidifies careers. She is the voice of common sense, and she makes up for years of toiling on the third-rate sitcom ”Arliss” with the spiritual smarts she gives Patti.
In Italy Frances finds a new love — a rundown villa, Bramasole, that she buys on the spur of the moment. But Tuscany is not the soul-saver that Frances hopes for. The house’s promises of romance and a new life in Tuscany don’t burst into bloom like the sunflowers that are often in view. She has a crush on the gentleman realtor, Martini (Vincent Riotta). He obviously has feelings for her, and he plays Martini with a genteel, aching shyness; he won’t give up his wife and home for an affair.
But these are the only adult touches in a movie that is not exactly about an adult. Despite the devotion Ms. Wells gives to the details and other characters in Frances’s life, you may find yourself waiting for someone to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to snap out of it. At times she acts like a lovelorn kid, especially when there is a subplot involving a Polish laborer restoring her home who falls for a young local girl.
Frances seems too adult to be so self-involved, and that is a compliment to the conception of her character. A contrast is offered by Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), a 50ish Englishwoman who has made Tuscany her home. Dwelling in a protracted adolescence, she has been enraptured by Italy ever since Fellini took a liking to her when she was a teenager. However, since Katherine’s life involves sporting dramatic haberdashery that Joan Crawford may have left behind and chasing young art-boys who leave her as dejected as Frances, this is not much of an alternative.
Fellini’s influence appears again when a dreamboat named Marcello (Raoul Bova) shows up in Frances’s life. The lesson of ”Sun” is that Frances needs to look closer at the big picture, and her avoidance of this raises questions about how perceptive a literary critic she may have been. But reality doesn’t exactly intrude in this movie. The film overlooks the actual cost of this ground-up refurbishing, which makes ”Sun” nebulous and wobbly. It suggests there is nothing concrete at stake and makes Frances’s plight seem more insubstantial, if that is possible. She appears to be a wounded dilettante, damaged goods as frilly as Katherine.
Eventually, after Frances has suffered enough, the film slaps on a happy ending like a Post-it note, but her reward is not earned. This conclusion cheapens what Frances has endured and is the equivalent of saying that all the work on her villa didn’t raise her property values by a single euro.