... the gray-leafed olive, mother, nurse of children,
perennial generations growing in her arms--
neither young nor old can tear her from her roots,
the eternal eyes of Guardian Zeus
look down upon her always,
great Athena too
her eyes gray-green and gleaming as the sea.
--Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus (trans. Robert Fagles, ll.797-802)
Critics have been complaining that Audrey Wells's new romance Under the Tuscan Sun, adapted from Frances Mayes's book, isn't worthy of its star, Diane Lane, and they're right. In the movie Lane plays a San Francisco book reviewer whose husband cheats on her and then rips her off in a California no-fault divorce; unable to recuperate in the States she goes on a tour of Tuscany and impulsively buys a dilapidated villa. The movie is a pretty random patch job of divorcee travails and travelogue adventures and carpe diem and fertility pageant. The jokes are soft, the emotions run broad rather than deep, the exhortations are to cringe, and the cultural appreciation is middle-high-brow. It knows its audience, however: at the first shot of a woman's new-born the entire theater went, "Ohhhhhhhhh!" (My sister would like it for the discussion of limoncello alone.) Such coherence as it has comes from several plot strands in which people don't die of broken hearts. Mainly the movie just tries to be whatever it needs to be from scene to scene. Still, I don't think I've ever seen a more ravishingly varied performance than Lane's in a more rattletrap vehicle.
You want to keep in mind that American movies have almost never been fully worthy of the most talented stars. Bette Davis, arguably Hollywood's top dramatic actress ever, for instance, never appeared in a script better than All About Eve (1950), which is no more than a terrific comic melodrama. We love it because it lets her use her what's excessive about her personality--her mannered gestures and delivery--for laughs, beating the drag queens to the punch for once. But it's a real opportunity for her because the melodramatic tensions allow her to invest the character's vulnerability with real feeling about a middle-aged woman facing the decline of power and career and love. (Davis, Warner Brothers veteran that she was, expands the role as much through the melodrama as the comedy, which probably wouldn't have been the case if Claudette Colbert, the star originally cast in the role, had played it.)