A film review by Craig J. Koban





2004, R, 108 mins.

Joel Barish: Jim Carrey / Clementine Kruczynski: Kate Winslet / Dr. Howard Mierzwiak: Tom Wilkinson / Stan: Mark Ruffalo / Patrick: Elijah Wood / Mary: Kirsten Dunst / Frank: Thomas Jay Ryan / Carrie: Jane Adams/ Rob: David Cross / Train Conductor: Gerry Robert Byrne

Directed by Michel Gondry /  Written by Charlie Kaufman

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is a bold, maddening, intricate, and convoluted work of post-modern genius.  To simple call this film “weird” does not in any way do it justice.  I was not sure what to expect and, frankly, I am still trying to gather my thoughts down to some sort of meaningful level.  The film is not one of those easily digestible, big budgeted, bloated and clichéd-filled rides that Hollywood shoots out at us with the subtlety of a flying hammer.  Watching it was considerably like looking at a Cubist painting - you realize that you are looking at something unique and special, but you are really not too sure where it truly begins or ends.  The film is a labyrinth, a jigsaw puzzle, and a complex and ingeniously scripted masterpiece.  I have never seen anything quite like it. 

The screenplay is credited to that master of the strange and peculiar, Charlie Kauffman.  You may or may not remember his scripts for BEING JOHN MALKOVICH  (where office workers find a portal to actor John Malkovich’s mind), ADAPTATION (a film about Charlie Kauffman himself trying to adapt a book about flowers), and CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (the George Clooney directed film about real life game show host Chuck Barris who, apparently, also worked as a hit man for the CIA on the side).  Let me start off by saying that none of the peculiarities of those films will prepare you for ETERNAL SUNSHINE. 

ETERNAL SUNSHINE starts simply enough.  We meet Joel (Jim Carrey) who wakes up one morning, decides to skip work and go soul searching on a train.  He meets Clementine (Kate Winslet) and they seem to hit it off.  The film continues at a brisk and fairly pedestrian pace.  Joel likes Clementine, but she sure is a firecracker of a women.  They eventually forge a relationship that, through a series of incidents, breaks down.   

This is where the film gets…very, very weird. 

Joel finds out that Clementine, after they broke up, had all memories of himself erased from her mind by a Doctor played by Tom Wilkinson.  Joel, in what seems to be an act of revenge for Clementine’s actions, goes to the same doctor later and asks him to erase all memories of Clementine from his brain.  With this insane procedure, the parties will not only not remember their loved ones, but all aspects of their loved ones (where they first met, what they like, and so forth). 

The sheer ludicrousness of the concept of removing one’s memories seems to be straight out of B-grade science fiction.  Yet, the film is told plainly and simply on the level of an art house independent film.  It is also a real investigation on the nature of the human mind.  The film has a fantastic visual edge and style.  It largely takes place in Carrey’s mind, and like an eraser that can gradual remove unwanted elements from a page, the mind removal procedure literally and physically erases Clementine and all memories of her as well.  In the world of Joel’s mind (in his memories) we see him at one point conversing with Clementine and then suddenly…POOF…she is erased.  There is only one problem.  Halfway through the procedure, Joel realizes how much he loves Clementine, and wants the procedure stopped.  Problem: how do you tell the doctor to stop the procedure when you are unconscious and trapped in the world of your own mind?  Well…as this film demonstrates, it sure as hell isn’t easy. 

Discussing the film’s plot almost defies further elaboration.  The film’s narrative weaves and interweaves back and forth through time and from Joel’s mind into the real world.  Sometimes, it’s hard to comprehend which is which.  Oftentimes, within Joel’s mind, we see him confronting memories of himself in scenes previous in the film.  The very fact that the story jumps all over the map and coils up around and back on itself over and over again steers it away from madness and lunacy and into some sort of a strange work of organized genius.  I can only imagine the editing and writing of the screenplay, not to mention the shooting of the film.  I came out of it with such a profound sense of fascination and appreciation for the sheer logistics of making the film…it almost defies criticism. 

Jim Carrey is truly fantastic in this film.  What better actor for a weird and twisted movie…I defy anyone with other suggestions.  Carrey’s career as a “serious” actor is growing and maturing with each drama he does.  He underplays the part with the right level of everyman appeal and a sense of underlying madness that, let’s face, any man would have with the prospects of being trapped in his own mind while his memory is being erased.   Kate Winslet’s work is Oscar caliber here.  She is a wonderful counterpoint to Carrey’s laid back and lonely character.  Clementine may not like everything about Joel, but he nevertheless fascinates her.  The two are a prime example of “opposites attract”, and the film succeeds in given them real chemistry and when it comes to the point when they do something so crazy and sinister like removing their memories of one another, it has real and contextual emotional weight.  We care about them and we are saddened by their choices and later desperations. 

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND will not be for everyone.  Some people, I fear, may leave the theatre hating it without really thinking about it. The film is a serious and completely deliberate attempt at disorienting the audience.  Surely, if our mind is a wasteland of memories, then the representation of that would not be clean cut and easily translatable.  The film is a giant pendulum through the world of the real and the world of the mind and memories, and it's done with so much style, so much wit, and so much invention.  It's kind of sly that, if you exclude the preposterousness of the premise and the labyrinthine plot that leaps all over the place, writer Charlie Kauffman still provides a tender and bittersweet romance with characters we relate to and care about.  Some may not like the film itself, but it’s incredibly difficult to undermine or not appreciate its scope, inventiveness, and sheer, unbridled audacity.

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