Memory and movies have much in common, and each has influenced the other over time. Are our memories really pure, or are they scrambled by selective editing, scoring, rewrites and even casting courtesy of the subconscious? It’s a natural topic for the cinema, and one that has been much in vogue of late. While Memento (and, further down the evolutionary scale, 50 First Dates) dealt with memory loss, Paycheck and Michael Winterbottom’s upcoming Code 46 concern memory removal. That subject is also at the heart of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the brilliant new film from Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman.
Kaufman’s previous screenplays include Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, each of which, in its own way, took us on a trip through the interiors of the human mind. Eternal Sunshine takes us further than either of those films, however; it’s an intricate recreation of one man’s subconscious. As such it should be confusing as hell, but together Kaufman and Gondry pull off a minor miracle. Even as the division between thought and reality blurs, the movie unfolds with shimmering clarity.
A love story with a science fiction twist, Eternal Sunshine stars Jim Carrey as Joel Barish, a distraught New Yorker who can’t figure out why his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) is suddenly pretending not to know who he is. One night, Joel’s friend Rob (David Cross) lets him in on a little secret: Clementine isn’t pretending. She’s undergone an experimental memory erasure courtesy of Dr. Howard Merzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) of Lacuna, Inc.
Merzwiak and his team – including technicians Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood) and secretary Mary (Kirsten Dunst) – have removed every memory of Joel from Clementine’s brain at her request. At a loss to understand Clementine’s action, Joel decides to undergo the procedure himself. As you might expect, it does not go smoothly. There are many more twists and turns, but the less said about the plot, the better. Suffice it to say that, as the Lacuna team mucks around in Joel’s brain, dreams, memory and reality collide in unexpected ways. Gondry, a music video veteran who previously directed a lesser Kaufman script, Human Nature, handles these shifts with a fluid, slightly surreal visual style that never seems gimmicky.
The presence of Jim Carrey will be a red flag for those with little tolerance for his manic mode, but his performances is one of Eternal Sunshine‘s surprising pleasures. With his mop of hair, five-day growth of beard and hangdog demeanor, Carrey bears a startling resemblance to Peter Krause’s Nate Fisher on Six Feet Under. He makes a genuine emotional connection with his character, revealing a depth of feeling unseen in his talking-butt movies, but never sinks into the quagmire of sentimentality as in The Majestic. He’s funny here too, but in a way consistent with believable human behavior; he’s a guy with a sense of humor rather than a gag machine. Kate Winslet is positively luminescent as Clementine, a free-sprit type with a penchant for garish hair dye. She’s exactly the sort of intense, all-consuming ex-girlfriend you’d want to have extracted from your brain, lest the memories drive you insane.
As wildly imaginative and funny as his previous work was, Kaufman has made an evolutionary leap forward with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There was something not-quite-finished about Being John Malkovich and Adaptation; they were exciting trips with lackluster destinations. Eternal Sunshine dazzles as its predecessors did, but its core of melancholy and heartbreak makes it a harder experience to shake off. It’s too early to declare it the movie of the year, but it’s going to be a tough one to top.