Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Is there a more intellectually thrilling screenwriter than Charlie Kaufman right now? Or ever? In 1999’s brilliant “Being John Malkovich,” he took a fantasy trip into the mind of the titular actor’s head as a way of exploring the nature of love, identity, and the soul. In 2002’s underrated “Human Nature,” he used the conventions of the sex comedy to create a bizzare comedy of manners and truth, and the acceptance of self. In “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” Kaufman adapted the odd Chuck Barris memoirs that questioned the reality of the game-show host’s life, which claimed he was in fact an assassin for the US Government. And in “Adaptation,” he made a self-depracating and artful examination of writer’s block, the eternal struggle between art and commerce, and the continuing struggle of human adaptation.
And yet, in his fifth feature film screenplay (based on a story by himself, director Michel Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth), he’s probably topped himself with his most oddly conventional story yet. Though on a personal level “Adaptation” is my favorite of his films, “Eternal Sunshine” is his best. If you think you’ve got the movie figured out by its’ trailer, think again. It’s the best love story in years.
Jim Carrey stars as Joel, a Manhattan-ite who’s been in a relationship with a wild child named Clementine (Kate Winslet) whose moods change as regularly as her hair color. One day, as the two are on the outs, a bombshell- turns out Clementine has gone to a specialty clinic. It’s specialty? The erasure of people from the memories of those who want to forget them. Saddened and quite peeved, Joel goes to the clinic and tells the good doctor- Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson)- he wants to do the same to Clementine. Soon, Joel is having his memories of Clementine erased in his house by Dr. Mierzwiak’s tech team- Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Elijah Wood), and Mary (Kirsten Dunst), but needless to say, the procedure doesn’t go as easily as one would expect.
How things go wrong I leave for you. What I will tell you is that Kaufman and Gondry- who ably directed “Human Nature,” but has found a surrealist footing worthy of comparison to Kaufman’s other frequent collaborator Spike Jonze (who directed “Malkovich” and “Adaptation”) here- have created a startlingly funny and artfully thrilling romantic comedy that proves that true love lies in the heart, not the memories.
The cast is punch-drunk in love with the material, which gives each the chance to plumb the depths of their characters personalities to darkly comic and tragic effect. Special props in the supporting cast to Dunst- taking a break from the big-budget spectacle of “Spider-Man” to break your heart as an adorable character with a devastating revelation to discover- and Wood- who moves beyond the dramatic symbolism of “Lord of the Rings” to register creepy comedy- though Wilkinson and Ruffalo find the right notes for their characters as well.
But the heart of the movie remains Carrey and Winslet, who up the ante on romantic longing as their minds wakeup to new prospects of love even if they can’t remember each other. Carrey’s never been better, building on the comic and dramatic skills of his best work (“The Truman Show,” “Batman Forever,” “Bruce Almighty”) and finding new terrain in both to create his most memorable and poignant character. He cares for Joel, and so do we. And Winslet continues to marvel in a career of both bold risks (Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures”) and sexy surprises (“Titanic”). Though Clementine can be a bit of a bitch, her true nature comes through in the moments in Joel’s memories of his deepest desire to hold on. You see why Joel was smitten with her in the first place. A kiss may be just a kiss, and a sigh may be just a sigh, but as Dooley Wilson sang in “Casablanca” (still the greatest movie romance of all-time), the fundamentals things apply as time goes by. Joel and Clementine may not have Paris, but theirs is a love that goes beyond the memories of their past and lays the foundation for their future in a one-of-a-kind love story of wonderful emotional layers and gravity.