Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

reviewed by
Laura Clifford

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND -------------------------------------

          How happy is the blameless vestal's lot! 
          The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 
          Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 
                                                 "Eloisa to Abelard" by Alexander Pope

Impulsive, bohemian Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet, "The Life of David Gale") sweeps into the life of methodical Joel Barish (Jim Carrey, "Bruce Almighty") like a breath of fresh air that turns into a tornado. When she arrives home very late and drunk one night, Joel lets fly with the regrettable words of an angry lover. His nasty accusation makes Clementine turn heel and erase his very existence in exchange for the "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

French director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's ("Adaptation") previous collaboration, "Human Nature," didn't gel but this time around everything clicks. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is Kaufman's best and most mature work to date and Gondry has realized a retro romp through the human brain.

When we first meet Joel, he's beginning a bad day, first discovering that his car's been hit and no note left. He joins assembled commuters on a railway platform, then suddenly breaks free and, on a whim, calls in sick and heads in the opposite direction to Montauk. Walking along the wintery beach he spies another Valentines Day loner, a punkish looking woman with unnaturally colored hair. She shows up again in a coffee shop and coincidence continues to build when she is in the same train car returning to the city. Clementine strikes up a conversation, Joel offers a ride and she offers more. While waiting for Clem to get her toothbrush, an anxious young man (Elijah Wood, "The Lord of the Rings") begins to ask Joel if he can help him.

Kaufman has begun close to the end and Patrick is alarmed because he is a technician at Lacuna, Inc., the firm Clementine turned to to have Joel wiped from her memory. Having fallen for Joel's girl while she was having the overnight procedure, Patrick did a very unethical thing - stole Joel's identity in order to woo her. It is at this point that Kaufman skillfully doubles back to the point where Joel discovered Clementine's eradication of him before spitefully making the same decision for himself. Kaufman turns the screw once more to examine the relationship's first life as its participants attempt to hide themselves from Lacuna's laser within the deepest recesses of Joel's mind after Joel realizes his mistake too late. As if this were not complex enough a tale, as Joel undergoes his procedure another romantic triangle forms among the employees of Lacuna gathered together in Joel's apartment.

Kaufman juggles a lot of ideas in this screenplay - the relevance of memory to identity, the nature of romantic love (oddly enough, both ideas which surfaced in the most recent Adam Sandler film, "50 First Dates," which stole this film's Valentine Day release date) and, strangely, the human tendency to destroy the very things which define them. Joel realizes that one of his few impulsive acts was a huge mistake, explained away for Clementine by her impetuous nature, yet in addition to Clementine's love of alcohol, every member of Lacuna's staff is constantly indulging in drink and drugs. Stan (Mark Ruffalo, "In the Cut") hides beers in his equipment case, Mary (Kirsten Dunst, "Mona Lisa Smile") raids Joel's liquor cabinet before breaking out the pot. Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson, "Girl with a Pearl Earring'), the technique's inventor, enjoys a Scotch, and reassuringly describes his process as brain damage not unlike that caused by a night of heavy drinking. Kaufman also revels in language here, picking apart the meaning of a woman's name or magnifying the significance of a bland adjective like 'nice.'

"Eternal Sunshine" most resembles not Gondry's previous Kaufman film, but Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich," not only in its exploration of identity and experience, but in its slightly grungy, retro look. The shabby offices of Lacuna recall the odd Mertin-Flemmer building with its 7 1/2 floor (and Kaufman again uses a file cabinet metaphor for the brain when Clem exclaims 'Hide me under humiliation!'). Gondry and production designer Dan Leigh ("The Laramie Project") have created a more intriguing vision of the inside of someone's head, however, with a mazelike approach where a remembered place can enter someone's living room with a camera pan and memories are articulated by spotlights which obscure their boundaries. Gondry has made Lacuna's memory hunters into Big Brother for hire.

Gondry has also elicited one of Jim Carrey's most restrained dramatic performances. Carrey's Joel is a self-described bore and Carrey generously and rightly lets Winslet steal their scenes together. In making Joel less interesting, Carrey's desperation to save Clementine in his own mind takes on more weight - she 'completes' him. Winslet is fabulously winning and emotionally messy as Clementine in a big, bold character interpretation. She makes Clementine's admission that 'I'm a vindictive bitch' positively gleeful. Mark Ruffalo is surprising fun, deglammed with geeky glasses and a shock of uncombed hair while Dunst stretches into new territory as a girlish experimenter who inwardly is just shyly trying to impress her boss. That would be the fatherly Wilkinson, who assuages his own guilt with a delusional interpretation of the physician's creed. And who knew that Wood's first appearance after his legendary Hobbit role would be as a weasely stealer of women's underwear? These performances are highlighted by costumer Melissa Toth ("The Perfect Score") and the designers who place the grown Carrey in a child's sink bath and decorate Clem's apartment with potato people. Jon Brion's ("Punch-Drunk Love") original music should cement his reputation as the quintessential composer for off beat films of unique vision.

Perhaps most surprising is this film's love story. After discovering their past, Clementine is ready to pass on their future, describing to Joel all the likely, nasty paths their relationship will take. Joel's simple, accepting 'OK,' embracing the whole messy package, may be the most romantic parting line in a movie this year.


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