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Love, American Style 

Finding romance with Woody and Diane

It's a sensation we haven't experienced in quite some time -- at least not to this extent. It begins as a small snort of approval. Later, it turns into a brief chuckle. Finally, it graduates into a series of sustained howls, and only then do we realize the amazing truth:

My God, we're actually laughing steadily throughout a Woody Allen movie!

This is no small feat, given the dearth of working-order humor in most of Allen's recent pictures, duds like Celebrity, Hollywood Ending and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. And let's take care not to oversell Anything Else, the source of this newly rediscovered groundswell of guffaws. This is clearly Minor League Allen, perhaps even Little League Allen. Yet it's also the closest the 67-year-old writer-director-actor has come in years to producing a consistently pleasing motion picture.

Part of the movie's appeal is that the creep-out factor has been excised -- namely, Allen's tendency to cast himself as elderly nebbishes who prove to be sexually irresistible to beautiful young women. Allen's character in Anything Else does not bed 23-year-old co-star Christina Ricci, as I erroneously reported in CL's recent Fall Film Preview. The furthest Allen goes is that, as director, he includes a scene in which Ricci wears a t-shirt so absurdly tight, her nipples threaten to rip through the fabric as dynamically as Bruce Banner shredding his street clothes when he turns into the Hulk.

Otherwise, Allen is clearly in hands-off mode, relegating himself to a supporting role as David Dobel, a paranoid Jewish intellectual (now there's a stretch!) who offers advice to the leading character. That would be Jerry Falk, a role that would normally be played by Allen but has instead been wisely handed off to a younger actor, American Pie's Jason Biggs (who does a decent job of appropriating Allen's mannerisms without burying the character under them). Dobel is full of advice for young Jerry, most of it centering on Jerry's strained relationship with his girlfriend Amanda (Ricci), a bundle of neuroses saddled with an overbearing mother (Stockard Channing), a self-deprecating manner (she considers herself fat) and a nasty habit of treating Jerry poorly.

The conversations between Dobel and Jerry allow Allen to touch upon many of his favorite themes (death, persecution, masturbation), but here they're merely given the slightest of lip service. And like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner in their embarrassing late-career declines, Allen's quick reflexes as a filmmaker often abandon him -- a few sequences end with jokes so hoary, the sensation is akin to watching a vaudevillian try to connect with college kids in an MTV Spring Break special by peppering them with "lampshade on the head" gags.

Yet for every joke that falls flat, there are a number that work -- a better ratio than we've seen in an Allen film in some time. Some of the one-liners are unusually sharp, zipping off the screen like arrows. When Amanda tries to hook Jerry up with another woman by declaring she's a "literate actress," he retorts, "Literate actress? Is that like a four-leaf clover?" At another point, someone mutters, "I'd like to commit suicide, but I have so many problems, that wouldn't solve them all." And a bit involving the Cleveland Indians deserves to be heard in context.

Biggs and Ricci may strike many viewers as too young to be convincingly debating philosophers and jazz legends alike, but they have a grasp for the distinctive rhythms of a Woody Allen flick and acquit themselves nicely. As for Allen, he's in fine form here, generating plenty of laughs as a man so terrified of the world around him that he's spent years purchasing items for the ultimate survival kit (watching Woody brandish a rifle is a sight). By volunteering to demote himself to second banana, the filmmaker has perhaps ensured his own survival in a marketplace that increasingly has little patience for his brand of comedy.

The new romantic comedy Under the Tuscan Sun will be pegged in most circles as a "chick flick" (a term I abhor), yet studio monitors with their fingers on the pulse of the movie's myriad advance screenings have reported that a vast majority of the men who attended these sneak peeks have emerged from the auditoriums bursting with praise for the picture. Well, of course they have -- a good movie's a good movie, whether it's pigeonholed as a "chick flick" or (to borrow Susan Sarandon's term) a "dick flick."

I suspect this modified adaptation of Frances Mayes' memoir will also be branded as the season's "feel-good" film, yet even that term is suspect. More likely, many viewers (both female and male) who watch as the movie's Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) abandons her life in America and finds romance and rejuvenation in Tuscany will begin to feel bitter about their own staid lives and will start engaging in flights of "what if?" fantasy, right down to poring over airline rates to Europe.

Lane, who finally came into her own with her mesmerizing, Oscar-nominated performance in last year's Unfaithful, is irresistible as our heroine, who, on the heels of a nasty divorce, heads to Italy on a vacation arranged by her best friend (Sandra Oh, playing a character more suited to a network sit-com). There, she falls in love with the Tuscan countryside and on a whim purchases a dilapidated villa in dire need of restoration. As she works on the house and becomes acquainted with the locals, she realizes that the one thing still missing from her improving life is romance.

Tuscan Sun largely plays out as one might expect, though the journey is so enjoyable that many audience members won't mind being led down this familiar path once more. Lane's heartfelt performance provides more depth to her character's plight than the goofy trailer would lead one to believe, and the supporting players are a finely drawn bunch, most notably Vincent Riotta as a sympathetic realtor whose married status forces him to suppress his attraction to Frances and Lindsay Duncan as a flamboyant actress constantly rhapsodizing about the brief time she worked with Fellini.

A warm and luminous film, Under the Tuscan Sun lets us hold onto summer for just a while longer.

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