For many movie lovers, the name Charlie Kaufman brings feelings of excitement. Kaufman is a gift in the world of cinema. His screenplays – which include Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind - are among the most creative, original, and unique pieces of film writing out there today. Walk into any picture he has written and you know exactly what you’re not going to get: a formulaic piece of Hollywood cookie-cutter storytelling. Kaufman’s latest effort is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry, whose Lego-inspired music video for the White Stripes “Fell in Love with a Girl” was visually groundbreaking.
Jim Carrey plays Joel Barish, the kind of guy whose sheer physical appearance clues you in that he has “issues.” He looks perpetually troubled, with his rumpled clothing and unkempt hair. Joel complains about his lack of success with women; he can’t look them in the eye, and he hasn’t dated anyone in two years. Then he meets Clementine (Kate Winslet), a free spirit whose hair color changes on a regular basis. She also has visible issues, coming off like a train wreck in the way her changing moods crash into one another. Somehow, they seem right for each other, but their relationship hits a sour note. One afternoon, Joel walks into the bookstore where Clementine works, only to have her act like she doesn’t even know him. Joel is crushed.
Then he finds out that Clementine visited a company called Lacuna, beautifully described in one line of dialogue as “some place that does a thing.” The “thing” they do is memory erasing. For a fee, Lacuna will put you through a process wherein anything you don’t want to remember will be literally removed from your mind. For reasons unbeknownst to Joel, Clementine has had him erased from her memory. Distraught, he decides to undergo the same procedure. The founder of Lacuna, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), assures him that, while the process is essentially brain damage, it’s only “on par with a night of heavy drinking.”
A group of technicians come to Joel’s house and put him in an unconscious state. He is hooked up to a computer, where Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and his assistant Patrick (Elijah Wood) find his memories on a brain map and zap them away permanently. Halfway through the process, Joel (still unconscious) decides that it’s a bad idea. His good memories with Clementine are some of the only good ones he’s had recently. Letting them go is even more painful than losing her. However, since he’s asleep, there’s no way to stop it. While he internally screams for help, Stan’s girlfriend - and Lacuna nurse - Mary (Kirsten Dunst) drops by for a night of pot smoking and fooling around. To avoid the continuing erasure, Joel runs through his own remaining memories and finds Clementine. He then attempts to locate a place within his own psyche where she can’t be found. We learn a lot about Joel by watching the places where he takes her.
Sounds kind of weird, yes? Believe me, it is. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind mostly takes place in a non-real reality. The bulk of the story unravels inside Joel’s head, where some things are real, some are not, and others are somewhere in between. However, it is this pretzel-like quality (common to all Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays) that makes the movie so brilliant. It is the kind of picture that makes you sit up and pay attention. You don’t know where the story is going from one minute to the next, or where it will lead. I sat there watching in fascination and utter delight as the story unfolded. At times, it can play with your head a bit, but at the end, everything comes together nicely.
Having seen the other movies written by Kaufman, I fully expected this kind of trippy experience. What I didn’t expect was to be so moved by the film. Kaufman’s other scripts were funny and clever, but not exactly filled with emotion. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has a melancholic feel – and a relevant moral – that caught me off guard. Coincidentally, the day before seeing the film something made me think back to a previous relationship in my life that was not very happy. I pondered the fact that those memories, while troubling to think about, have made me appreciate even more the happiness I now share with my wife. That’s exactly the message of this movie. Just because something eventually became unpleasant doesn’t mean there weren’t good times as well, and there may be some value in those good memories. Also, we may need to hold onto the bad memories because they can teach us. They can prevent us from making the same mistakes again. The thought of them can even make us appreciate it when things are better. That’s an incredibly beautiful and life-affirming message for a movie to deliver.
On a technical level, everything here is perfect. The cast is superb, with Carrey and Winslet doing phenomenal jobs playing against type. I like how even the supporting characters have their own arcs that contribute to the theme of the overall story. Director Gondry brings a visual flair that effectively sets the tone and atmosphere. Sometimes he shoots in darkness with the actors lit only by a small spotlight attached to the camera. Other times, he blurs parts of the image to illustrate Joel’s memories vanishing. On a visual level, the picture is just as accomplished as it is on a script level.
I’m not going to spoil the ending, but I will say that it twists on itself in a way that brings deeply satisfying possibilities. I cared about Joel and Clementine. They are strange, troubled people, but somehow we feel like they need to remember each other, for their own good. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (whose title comes from a line in an Alexander Pope poem) urges us not to be afraid of our memories whether they be good or bad. We need them in order to make our lives exactly what we want them to be.
( out of four)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is rated R for language and some sexual and drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.
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