Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

directed by Michel Gondry

written by Charlie Kaufman

starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo and Tom Wilkinson

review by Stephen Notley

It's a simple procedure, and tempting. You're heartbroken, you're not happy, you want to move on. If you like, you can bring the items and totems of your no-longer-loved one down to our office and we'll erase him or her from your memory with a little selective brain damage. You can get over everything in one big go. Sound good? No? Well, we just did the procedure on your ex-girlfriend. Now whaddya think?

That's where we find Jim Carrey as Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the newest dive into the mysteries of consciousness and identity from Being John Malkovich writer Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman has a lock on brilliantly original script concepts, and as he says in Adaptation, he's frustrated and bored with typical Hollywood movie structure with its automatic payoffs, love interests, car chases and goal-achieving characters. As a result it's no surprise that Eternal Sunshine defies easy packaging or simple plot-summarizing. Let's just say that Carrey decides to have the procedure done and it involves Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood as drunken dope-smoking memory-erase technicians busting into his house and expunging his brain while he sleeps and dreams his way back through his memories.

Is this a comedy? Well, parts of it are funny, but no, it's not a comedy. Is it a love story? No, if anything it's of an anti-love story, the dissolution of a romance. It's an icy film, cold not only in its images, with snowswept beaches and freezing rain, but also in its conclusions, its dizzyingly arrived-at results.

Jim Carrey acts in this movie. There's no shtick; it's as real and simple a performance as Adam Sandler's in Punch-Drunk Love. His Joel is a guy without the animating spark of Jim Carrey-ness, a keeps-to-himself fella who doesn't make eye contact and doesn't talk much. His hair's a little mussed, he's a little dopey, and he doesn't really seem right for hair-dying drinker Clementine, played with asssertive self-confidence by Kate Winslet. And yet they are together, or were, and now we get to see it all unravel backwards in time.

It's an odd thing to move backwards through a failed relationship, with the freshest memories being the most recent, just-before-the-breakup experiences, thick with all the dislike, the frustration, the divisions and we're-totally-wrong-for-each-other stuff that made it happen. We see nasty things like Carrey watching Winslet sip her wine at dinner and sourly thinking "she's gonna be drunk and stupid now" to himself, or the last time he saw her, her storming angrily down the street telling him to fuck off, faggot.

But to go backwards through an unraveling is a raveling, and so we see the relationship wind together as we move further back. Joel gets to know Clementine better than he ever had because somehow the Clementine in his mind is alive and knows what's happening. She becomes an active participant in his journey back through his life as they try to hide, to protect what they had, digging back into memories to find refuge in hidden or shameful memories. And as they go, knowingly moving back through their time together, they reconsider their choices and tell each other what they were thinking back then.

Kaufman plays crazy and subtle with his narrative, sliding flashbacks into memories into present-living dreams. Eternal Sunshine isn't as overtly modern-fantastical as Being John Malkovich, where early weirdness like the perfectly bizarre midget-sized 71/2 floor prepared the audience for the notion that behind a filing cabinet there could be a tunnel that led into John Malkovitch's mind. Eternal Sunhine has a very real-life look, particularly at first, with dreary train stations and wet streets. But as reality becomes an active lucid dream director Michel Gondry plays sneaky tricks, erasing signs and dropping cars and deleting fences, perfectly handling the strange transitions and curious sideroads of Kaufman's story.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isn't a feel-good movie, though there are many sweet and beautiful moments in it. Kaufman's ending, as we see the memory-wiped couple getting to know each other again, isn't hopeful. But it is bracing, like an icy wind to clear the mind. Like a dream, it's difficult to recall and impossible to forget. Check it out.

Home links reviews fanklub t-shirts books annotations archive