Like the crumbling Italian villa at the center of this story, there is a lot wrong with the movie, but it is so enticing — especially for its intended audience — that it is hard to resist.
The best-selling book by Frances Mayes about her restoration of a crumbling villa is beautifully written and wonderfully evocative, but it does not have much of a story. So writer/director Audrey Wells has taken the real Mayes, and thrown a lot of plot at her, just the kind of thing that last year’s Adaptation should have warned her against.
Mayes (played by the exquisite Diane Lane) is now a book critic and would-be novelist who is dumped by the husband she has been supporting. This means that he is entitled to alimony in addition to his half of the house, which he wants to keep. She is financially and emotionally devastated and moves into a depressing furnished apartment complex filled with people who are getting divorced.
When her best friend Patti (the marvelous Sandra Oh) becomes pregnant, she gives Frances her ticket for a tour of Tuscany. It’s a “Gay and Away” tour, which is fine with Frances, who is relieved that there will be no possibility of romantic entanglements.
But she ends up with an entanglement is of a different kind, impulsively buying an ancient house called Bramasole, which translates into “yearning for the sun.”
And yes, it is Frances who is yearning for the sun, and yes, the renovation of the house is a metaphor for renovating her spirits. On this emotional journey, she will meet kind souls who will impart life lessons with a profundity somewhere between fortune cookie and Dr. Phil.
A free-spirited Englishwoman, a kind local realtor, and three Polish construction workers help her get ready to enter back into life again, and a charming Italian man helps her begin by reminding her that she is capable of loving and being loved. Frances makes a wish for a wedding and a family in the house and when at first it seems that the wedding and the family are not the ones she wished for, she begins to understand that they really are just what she wanted. And she learns that she can help others who yearn for the sun, healing herself at the same time.
The problem is that director/screenwriter Wells tells us a lot more than she shows us. She seems to have no understanding of how to translate a story into film. The movie often seems abrupt and unfinished and the characters are superficially drawn. The script tells us how the characters feel about each other but does not make it matter enough for us to believe in or care about the way their relationships are resolved. Lane brings as much to the material as is humanly possible, but is given little to do beyond looking wistful and wounded. But it is all beguilingly pretty to watch and its message of hope and second chances is beguilingly pretty, too.
Parents should know that the movie has some strong language for a PG-13. There are sexual references and situations, including a sexual encounter between two people who barely know each other — portrayed as deeply romantic and healing — and a sexually active young couple. Another character is happily promiscuous. Mayes’ husband leaves her for another woman. The movie does a good job of avoiding stereotypes with a gay Asian character.
Families who see this movie should talk about all of the advice that Mayes gets and what she learns from it, especially the stories about the train tracks, about bad ideas being like playground bullies, and about the ladybugs. How important is “childish enthusiasm?” Why did Frances believe the relationship with Marcello was more than it was? In the book, Mayes says that “the house is a metaphor for the self.” How is that shown throughout the movie?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Enchanted April and A Room With a View, both part of the rich tradition of movies showing how the sun-dappled vistas and luscious food of Italy can restore souls and open hearts. There’s an almost-as rich tradition of harried home renovations movies (the best is Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House) and of house-as-metaphor movies, most recently Life as a House with Kevin Kline. Families might also like to try some Italian cooking, learn more about the tradition of the flags in Siena, and of course visit Tuscany if they can.