Eternal Sunshine of
the Spotless Mind
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.