Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

on March 19, 2004 by Ray Greene
The surface oddity and fundamental melancholia of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work make him a distinctive talent in today's Hollywood--though perhaps less distinctive than some presume him to be. After almost 10 years as a TV comedy writer for shows like "Get a Life" and the short-lived Dana Carvey variety series, Kaufman burst into the movie world with his script for director Spike Jonze's offbeat 1999 comedy "Being John Malkovich." In "Malkovich," large portions of which transport fictional characters inside the famed character actor's head, Kaufman pioneered his own special brand of deadpan surrealism, where the barriers between inner and outer space degrade to the point of nonexistence.

In Kaufman's best and most misunderstood screenplay, the brilliant "Adaptation," his own struggle to avoid falling into the overused banalities of contemporary Hollywood story structure becomes the jumping-off point for a movie that refuses to announce to its audience that it is also a kind of head trip. "Adaptation" appears to be a film about a screenwriter in Hollywood adapting a book but is actually intended to work as the produced film based on the script created during that struggle. "Adaptation's" much maligned final third, when what had been a sweet, adventurous and decidedly offbeat self-analysis by Kaufman deteriorates into the harsh clichés of a thousand Hollywood melodramas, is Kaufman's attempt to demonstrate for the audience that life is far too rich and complex to be boiled down to the situational shorthand hucksters like real-life screenwriting guru Robert McKee promulgate. Stuck for a finale, the Kaufman of the film succumbs to McKee's ideas for a perfect "third act," and in doing so, betrays everything special and specific about the 90 minutes of movie that came before its McKee-ified ending.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," an idea Kaufman conceived in partnership with director Michel Gondry, symbolizes a struggle similar to the one depicted in "Adaptation," in ways Kaufman and Gondry may not entirely have intended. On the one hand, "Eternal Sunshine" is a manifestation of many of Kaufman's signature surrealist premises and devices, almost to a fault. On the other, it uses some fairly cliché Hollywood storytelling conventions to move things along in ways that are reminiscent not only of "Being John Malkovich" but also of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," a film Kaufman adapted for George Clooney based on '70s gameshow kingpin Chuck Barris' bizarre autobiographical memoir.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind In "Eternal Sunshine's" vaguely science-fictionish premise, the bickering lovers Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) put themselves at the mercy of a secretive company headed by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak ("In the Bedroom's" Tom Wilkinson). Mierzwiak has developed a way to erase all memories of a failed romance from the suffering minds of broken couples. Most of the film takes place inside Carrey's brain, as Mierzwiak's technology searches for and systematically destroys all recollections of Joel's life with Clementine.

The twist comes as Joel gradually realizes the inestimable value of even his bad memories of someone he once loved. Joel starts to resist the technology, at first trying to waken, and then attempting to find places in his own subconscious where he and his memory of Clementine can hide till Wilkinson's wittily named "Lacuna" procedure is over.

Schizophrenia is built into an idea like that, to a point where the movie itself becomes bifurcated by contrary impulses. There's a tenderness and a wistfulness to Kaufman's writing and Carrey's performance during many of the scenes between Joel and his vanishing impression of Clementine that is as affecting as anything Kaufman has ever done. But like "Being John Malkovich" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Eternal Sunshine" quickly remembers it's a Hollywood movie, and therefore is to be driven forward by action and conflict at all costs. Scenes of Joel explaining to his idea of Clementine why he loved her and what he left unsaid are soon alternating with sequences in which Joel and Clementine are literally chased through Joel's brain by Wilkinson's computer program, which lays waste to all it touches as it deletes Joel's memory. It's as if an old episode of "The Fugitive" had been staged inside David Janssen's skull. While "Eternal Sunshine" is at all times clever, to say there's a fundamental conflict between Kaufman's romantic impulses and the predicament-based quasi-action stuff is to understate the case.

"Eternal Sunshine" rights itself admirably in its final scenes, which take Joel and Clementine straight past the expected mechanics of reconciliation and into complexities of the heart that are both inherent in the story idea and richer than anything that has come before. At its best, "Eternal Sunshine" is reminiscent of a messy and angular romantic bear-hug like Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch Drunk Love" (a resemblance enhanced by an outstanding "Sunshine" score from frequent Anderson collaborator Jon Brion).

There is so much that is both right and touching about "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," including Carrey's most naturalistic performance ever and the earned sentimentality of Kaufman's view of relationships, that a sympathetic viewer can be forgiven the fanciful desire to follow a viewing of this film with a brief visit to Dr. Mierzwiak's memory erasure facility. With a few adjustments of plot and premise, Gondry and Kaufman might have made their masterpiece here. Fortunately, what's distinctive about "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is apt to linger in the mind's eye far longer than the things that are not. Starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo and Tom Wilkinson. Directed by Michel Gondry. Written by Charlie Kaufman. Produced by Steve Golin and Anthony Bregman. A Focus release. Drama. Rated R for language, some drug use and sexual content. Running time: 107 min

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