Under the Tuscan Sun,directed by Audrey Wells, is pretty much exactly what it appears:a light-heartedromantic comedy aboutheartbreak and healing set in a picturesque small town in Italy. What the promos don’t tell you, however, is that the main character, Frances (Diane Lane) has a lesbian best friend Patti (Sandra Oh), who takes a similar journey in the film.
When the film opens, both women are happily partnered: Frances with her writer-husband Tom, and Patti with her girlfriend Grace (Kate Walsh), with whom she is about to have a child. Frances is devastated to discover Tom is cheating on her, and when her divorce is finalized, Patti and Grace offer to send Frances on the Gay Tour of Italy that they were originally scheduled to go on before Patti found out she was pregnant.
In one of the funniest lines in the film, Frances thanks them but protests, saying that while it might be fun, at some point during the trip she is sure she would wake up and ask “What am I doing on a f–king gay tour of Tuscany?”
She goes anyway, and there a few funny scenes with her on a tour bus in Italy with a bunch of happy gay men (and a few lesbians).
At one stop along the way, she reads about a villa for sale, and impulsively decides to get off the bus and buy it — and this is when her new life begins. Frances dreams of having a wedding in this house, and a family. Eventually, after much trial and error with a cast of colorful locals and a dashing young Italian man who sweeps her off her feet, Frances gets her wish — but not exactly the way she expected it.
Halfway through the film, as Frances is just starting to heal, Patti appears on her doorstep in Tuscany, pregnant and alone; Grace has left her because she didn’t want to be a mother, after all. The two women cry and commiserate together, and after she gives birth, Patti settles in to raise her daughter with Frances.
Fortunately, both women find love again in the end (although you only catch Patti’s lover if you look closely at the left side of the screen in the last few moments of the film), but not until they’ve suffered a lot first.
Patti’s heartbreak is treated similarly to Frances’s throughout the film, and the strong bond between two friends is touching. In fact, there is little to criticize about the character of Patti, except that I could do without another pregnant-lesbian storyline. In this film, though, at least the pregnancy actually factors into the overall storyline and isn’t just a result of the writers not knowing what else to do with the lesbian character.
The character of Patti is not a lesbian in the book this film is based on, so perhaps this change reflects a growing trend towards including lesbians in mainstream films where you don’t necessarily have to. Or perhaps it’s the writer’s way of “spicing up” a potentially sleepy little film.
Oh (who is perhaps best known for her recurring role on the TV show Arli$$) is an inspired choice to play Patti; she can be alternately witty, warm, and sad with equal effectiveness. It is also extremely unusual for Hollywood to cast an actress who isn’t white in a lesbian role, and as a Korean-Canadian, Oh lends such much-needed diversity to representations of lesbians in mainstream films.
Lane is also convincing as a woman struggling to recover from betrayal, a woman who yearns to trust again, but can’t quite figure out how.
The film’s pacing is rather odd, as Frances goes through more romantic ups and downs than most movie heroines, and at times there seems to be a few too many characters to keep track of. The character of Katherine (Lindsay Duncan) is particularly puzzling (although mostly delightfully so), and the side-story of the young couple in love is a nice complement to the larger storyline.
Under the Tuscan Sun is not a riveting drama or a laugh-out-loud comedy, but as a bitter-sweet story about self-discovery and dealing with what life throws at you, it mostly succeeds. At times I found my attention wandering along with the story, but this is easily forgiven in light of the good acting, the beautiful scenery, and the film’s heart, which is always in just the right place.