Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

April 18 2004, 0 Comments

I had great expectations from this movie. Charlie Kaufman’s previous stories are among my favourite films. But this movie was terrible. Absolutely pointless. Made no sense whatsoever. In fact, that’s all I have to say about it in this review. Don’t bother going to watch it. You (and millions of other moviegoers) won’t enjoy it. You can stop reading now. Bye-bye.

Okay. Only the real movie-lovers are left. I wanted to get rid of those other people… they wouldn’t have appreciated the movie nor my review of it. I was only kidding about the movie… it’s actually BRILLIANT!

Forgive me for adapting that little joke from one of Jim Carrey’s previous films, Man on the Moon. That was a film in which many critics feel Jim Carrey gave his best performance. I think his acting in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is even better than that; in my opinion the greatest work he’s ever done. The performance is possible because the success of this film isn’t dependent on Jim Carrey BEING Jim Carrey. In almost all his comic roles (think Ace Ventura or Dumb and Dumber), Carrey has been able to mould the characters deftly around his manic, face-pulling persona. Essentially, all Carrey’s comic characters ARE Jim Carrey with different names. But in this film, it’s Carrey who completely inhabits his character, Joel Barish, and becomes him: this shy, awkward man. You completely forget the rubber-faced Jim Carrey of all those previous films; it’s almost like being introduced to a new actor.

The story is about Joel and his relationship with the free-spirited Clementine (Kate Winslet, who is sublime in this film). The film opens with them meeting and falling for each other and planning the start of a life together. In the very next scene, Joel reveals to his close friends that the relationship is over. If that little development catches you off-guard, I must remind you that Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay. His previous films include Adaptation, in which the plot develops like a roller-coaster ride, and the mind-bending Being John Malkovich. This is a writer who doesn’t play by the familiar ‘introduction-development-climax-conclusion’ rules you were taught in high school Literature classes. Yet somehow, he still seems to make the material accessible: despite being almost surreal at times, the audience is able to keep up with radical story shifts as the plot unfolds.

You see, what actually happened is that after Clementine broke up with Joel, she had him completely erased from her memory by undergoing a procedure peddled by a doctor at an office no more sophisticated than your average general practitioner’s. After Joel learns that she has had him erased, he decides to erase her from his memory too – to spite her (or so he thinks). The rest of the movie is devoted to the actual process of obliterating Joel’s memory. When you hear a plot like this, you half expect mad-scientists to pop up, complete with monstrous machines covered by ghoulishly blinking lights, and special-effects enhanced pyrotechnics as the memories are scorched from the patient’s mind. But Kaufman can use this unusual plot as the structure for a rather touching love story, which might have been told conventionally by a less creative writer.

The technician assigned to erase Joel’s memory starts by erasing the most recent memories first. As those memories are accessed we see them played out in Joel’s mind. Since the most recent memories coincide with the demise of the relationship, and the earlier memories are those of love blossoming, as the operation progresses the tragedy of the failed relationship becomes all the more poignant. We see how good they used to be together; that the relationship never lasted makes us sad. Even more painful is the fact that they are erasing each other completely from their lives, including the good times. And Joel (doing what could be described as lucid dreaming) realises this too as he watches those pleasant experiences being destroyed. So, from inside his own mind, he starts to fight the procedure: trying desperately to cling on to the diminishing memories he has of Clementine.

An innovative screenplay like this can only be successful if visualised by a talented director. In this regard, the French Michel Gondry (who collaborated previously with Kaufman on Human Nature), shows that his direction is just as original as Kaufman’s writing. He doesn’t resort to special effects to show us the process of memories disappearing from Joel’s mind. Instead, clever lighting and intelligent set-design make the process seem more realistic and keep the audience engaged by the love story that is played out as Joel’s memories vanish.

Some of the films funniest scenes occur in the real-world outside Joel’s mind, where the technician (Mark Ruffalo, sufficiently geeked-up) allows the ‘erasing machine’ to continue on autopilot whilst he gets stoned and naked with his girlfriend (Kirsten Dunst) and strange friend, Patrick (Elijah Wood, who looks like a hobbit in this film too). There is an intriguing subplot which develops involving these characters and the doctor behind the memory erasing procedure (played by Tom Wilkinson) that raises the most disturbing question of the film: if the procedure really were possible, who could you actually trust – when even your own memory of events can’t be trusted anymore?

Philosophical questions aside though, this is a film that works as a love story, albeit an unconventional one. And what makes the love story work is how much empathy the main protagonists are able to draw from us. Carrey and Winslet portray their characters so completely that they seem unquestionably real to the audience. In them we can identify all our own needs, in particular the need for intimate companionship. The story also hints at a question: is it possible that we are destined to be with a specific person? That no matter what situations they find ourselves in (by memory erasure or not), some people are just compelled to be together?

I saw 50 First Dates earlier this year, which is another love story involving a character’s memory being lost. I recommended that film to friends saying that it was one of the few romantic comedies I’ve seen recently that has real heart. To those same people I recommend Eternal Sunshine: not only does it have a heart, it has a brain as well.

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