Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
review by Dan Lybarger, 20 March 2004

It's no secret that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is a clever writer. At times, Kaufman practically advertises his wit.

For example, in Spike Jonze's Adaptation, he penned a movie about not being able to adapt a book into a film and got away with it. He even had the gall to make the lead character a warped version of himself and to add in a make-believe twin brother for good measure. If that weren't enough, he shifted perspective so that each Kaufman brother took over the narrative at different times.

Kaufman should have fallen flat on his face with all the self-referential humor, but instead fully earned an Oscar nomination for both himself and his imaginary brother. No small feat.

Kaufman might have awed us with his finesse, but he didn't always make viewers care. It was a bit difficult to get worked up over whether Nicolas Cage would get his script done in Adaptation of if Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) could eventually find his soul in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

Thankfully, Kaufman and the MTV-trained and French director Michel Gondry (who helmed Kaufman's Human Nature) have easily overcome that obstacle with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman's narrative gymnastics are still here. The film is told out of chronological order, and the intricately enigmatic opening only makes sense after you've completed the film.

In addition, he and Gondry have created some deeply flawed but sympathetic characters and have imbued the film with a romanticism that's strangely compatible with the weirdness.

Offbeat, but surprisingly effective casting helps. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet (a pairing that on paper seems weirder than the portal in Being John Malkovich) play Joel Barrish and Clementine Kruczynski, a couple whose two-year relationship has floundered.

Tiring of doing little else but arguing with Joel, she secretly goes to Lacuna, Inc. to get her memories of him permanently erased from her mind. When Joel discovers he's been both dumped and "deleted," he storms in the clinic and walks out actually considering the same procedure for himself.

The chairman and founder of Lacuna is the brilliant Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), who is as talented a salesman as he is a scientist. Joel, not wanting to spend another Valentine's Day alone brooding over the breakup and the snub, goes along with the procedure.

Unfortunately, the doctor himself isn't doing the procedure. Instead, his maladroit, lazy underlings (Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood) have been left alone with Joel. As they proceed (in a haze of drugs and hormones), Joel becomes aware of his memories and suddenly falls in love with Clementine all over again and tries to save what's left of his recollections, botching the treatment.

The union at its best less than ideal (Joel is repressed, and Clementine is impulsive and drinks heavily), but Joelís fight to keep whatís left of his subconscious is weirdly compelling and at times deeply moving. As he demonstrated in The Truman Show, Carrey can play heartbreak with the same conviction that he can perform a fart gag in one of his regular comedies. In some ways, heís more sympathetic when heís performing in a more low key film like this one because he seems more human. His manic energy will probably prevent him from ever being convincing as an Average Joe, but in this film his outbursts seem less freakish and more empathetic.

It itís a change of pace to see Carrey playing it straight, itís a pleasant surprise to see Winslet (sporting hair that's either blue or orange) handle comedy. You can hear the British actressís American accent slip a couple of times, but she does seem to relish taking on a role thatís more outrageous than Carreyís.

In addition to coaching some terrific performances all the way around, Gondry evokes a moody atmosphere that's a nice complement to Kaufman's quirky whimsy. The sky is usually cloudy, and the dwelling's and offices in the film look convincingly lived in. The film doesn't look bland at all (with the mopey but appropriate soundtrack and Ellen Kuras' grainy cinematography that's not a possibility), but Gondry's quest for style doesn't come at the expense of the story.

Another interesting touch is that Gondry treats memory erasure not as something exotic or high-tech, but instead presents Lacuna as an ordinary outpatient clinic, albeit one with the most comically inept support staff imaginable.

Gondry and Kaufman may be getting a little philosophical here, too. The bumblers who inadvertently torture Joel may literally sleep on the job because the task itself is tempting but ultimately foolish. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind indicates that erasing past horrors doesn't stop new ones from occurring, and that respect of those we don't like may be more effective than neutralization.

Kaufman, working from an idea that he hatched with Gondry and French artist Pierre Bismuth, reportedly spent somewhere in the neighborhood of three years polishing this up while he was working on other projects. The extra time is evident because there's a polish here that was absent from Human Nature and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and thankfully his old strengths still remain. There's a priceless bit where Winslet encourages Carrey to have some booze stating, "It'll make the seduction less repugnant."

But it's nice to see that he's decided to use his talent on something more rewarding than simple mind games.

Directed by:
Michel Gondry

Starring:
Jim Carrey
Kate Winslet
Gerry Robert Byrne
Elijah Wood
Thomas Jay Ryan
Mark Ruffalo
Jane Adams
David Cross
Kirsten Dunst
Tom Wilkinson
Ryan Whitney
Debbon Ayer
Amir Ali Said
Brian Price
Paul Litowsky
Josh Flitter
Lola Daehler
Deirdre O'Connell

Written by:
Charlie Kaufman
Michel Gondry
Pierre Bismuth

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may be
inappropriate for
children under 13.

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