Mayes' 1996 book is a carefully observed meditation on buying a decrepit Italian villa with her husband, fellow writer Ed Mayes, fixing the old place up and joining the daily pageant of Italian country life. It's a quirky, admirably personal piece of writing that eventually did for the picturesque Tuscan town of Cortona what Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence had done a few years earlier for the southern French towns of Aix and Avignon -- provoked a full-scale invasion by armies of American tourists eager to immerse themselves in the local color and cuisine. But if the poor Tuscans thought they'd already experienced the full force of camera-clicking Americanos, they'll likely find otherwise once the dewy-eyed masses exit the multiplex and start haranguing their travel agents for bargain fares to Florence.
As reinvented, if you can call it that, by writer-director Audrey Wells (Guinevere), Frances Mayes (bland Diane Lane) is now an unhappy San Francisco writer who is suffering through a soul-killing divorce from an unfaithful husband. When the fictional Frances' best friend, Patti (Sandra Oh), gives her a tour package to Italy, she reluctantly gets on the plane with a colorful array of gay tourists. Ripping Mayes' poetic fabric asunder, Wells crams her movie with a lot of the usual chick-flick elements: a wounded but plucky heroine, a bittersweet tone and the promise of renewal. Gone is the keen intelligence that energized Mayes' book. Instead, the Italians in Frances' orbit -- along with a trio of Polish workmen -- are crude caricatures, and Wells saws away at our emotions with the subtlety of a drunken dockworker trying to play the violin. Except for a few startling views of rolling green hills and a field of scarlet flowers, even Tuscany itself is relegated to minor status.
Lane's fraudulent Frances impulsively buys a wrecked 300-year-old villa and undertakes a huge renovation project that reflects -- what else? -- the restoration of her own shattered heart. She learns to pick olives and drink the local wine, gets advice for the lovelorn from an Italian named Martini (Vincent Riotta) and befriends an unhappy Polish teenager (Pawel Szajda) who's fallen in love, Romeo and Juliet-style, with a pretty Italian girl. Frances also dutifully studies the free-spirited ways of an adventurous older woman called Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), who combines all the clichés about aging seductresses. By the time her salt-of-the-earth workmen have driven all the pigeons out of the house and got the electricity working, our heroine has even found time to fall in love with a predictably handsome dreamboat named Marcello (Raoul Bova), who spirits her away in his Alfa-Romeo convertible, gives her little flutes of limoncello to drink and tells her he wants to swim in her beautiful eyes.
But you know Italian men. Two plot twists later, our none-too-fascinating American expat manages to find real fairy-tale contentment among the ubiquitous sunflowers and platters of pasta carbonara -- via someone else's wedding, the birth of someone else's baby and, yes, true love for herself. The old house even looks pretty good.
If we can believe the studio publicity machine, author Mayes has no complaints about the "fictional dramatization" her book has undergone. But the former San Francisco State professor may be too busy these days to notice. Mayes' franchise now includes two more books, Bella Tuscany and In Tuscany, both inferior to the original, and a line of American-made furniture called "At Home in Tuscany."