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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Michel Gondry, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.6

 

 

Posted: March 20, 2004

By Laurence Station

Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who first collaborated on Gondry's interesting but flawed debut feature Human Nature, reunite for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which, like all Kaufman films, posits with an intriguing notion: What if you could selectively erase your memories? Lose a beloved pet? Leapfrog past the mourning process by deleting all recollection of the animal. Hurting from a failed relationship? No sweat. Zap those nagging mnemonic brain cells keeping you chained to all the good, bad and ugly moments you shared.

Kaufman's script follows a hapless Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), who discovers that his mercurial ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had him erased from her memory. In retaliation, he goes to the doctor who performed the procedure -- Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) -- and orders the same done to him. The downsides? Well, brain damage, for one -- no more than that caused by a night of heavy drinking, as Mierzwiak drolly informs his patient. But before he's gotten very far into the procedure, Joel realizes the real disadvantage: he's really eradicating a part of himself. As he lies unconscious in bed in his apartment, watched over by a couple of the doctor's assistants, Joel trips backward through his memories of Clementine and interacts with them, attempting to outpace and outsmart the erasure technicians.

The possibilities of having Jim Carrey manically bound around his thoughts are limitless, but Eternal Sunshine doesn't even try to exploit them to their fullest radical potential. Whereas Kaufman's most impressive work, Being John Malkovich, truly pushed the narrative and thematic envelope (remember John Cusack being ejected from Malkovich's brain near the New Jersey turnpike?), Sunshine plays out in fairly predictable (if somewhat inverted) romantic comedy fashion: Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back. Instead of some kind of trippy Fantastic Voyage of the subconscious, we're subjected to a fairly familiar, Memento-style rewind through Joel's mind, watching the pair's ugly breakup and following it to its sweet, tender origins, the better to have us, like Joel, realize just what he's losing at the most dramatically poignant moment possible. A too-conventional framing device, involving Joel's reaction the morning after the procedure, only adds to the film's safe, formulaic feel, engineered to make sure audiences never lose sight of how they're supposed to react.

Had the entire tale taken place during the night of the procedure, complete with various complications involving Mierzwiak's flaky assistants (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst, all doing impressive work), and ended with Joel awakening to his new, Clementine-free life, Eternal Sunshine might have ranked on a par with Malkovich. Unfortunately, we get a night of procedural mishaps, and some interesting revelations regarding Mierzwiak and Dunst's character, but the intriguing core of the film -- life inside Joel's brain as it's being wiped -- leaves us wanting more. Scenes of Joel taking refuge in childhood memories fall flat, primarily because it's simply not very interesting watching Jim Carrey act like a little kid: He does that for a living. We're never given the opportunity to discover who Joel really is. What we are given is obvious visual gimmicks like having the scenery around Joel vanishing as he attempts to leap to a safe, non-Clementine-related memory.

Where Sunshine is most effective, then, is in the depiction of the relationship between the two leads. Kate Winslet gives a wonderful performance as the impulsive free spirit who can't stand Joel's staid ways. But even here, we're not given enough to fully invest us in the outcome. Yes, Joel is boring, but we never learn enough about him to sufficiently understand what Clementine saw in him in the first place. Joel's mind offers us little to work with: a collection of interesting people he knows, or the fact that he draws crude pictures and scribbles random thoughts in his sketchbook. Hardly the stuff of three-dimensional character shading. Carrey does commendable work as Joel, but a dud is still a dud, not matter how talented the performer playing him.

Eternal Sunshine sports a fantastic premise: that reality is, for all intents and purposes, the sum total of our memories; erase them and you've effectively obliterated who you are. And it benefits from some excellent performances. But amazingly enough, the weak link proves Kaufman's inability to translate an idea so pregnant with possibilities into a truly daring, unusual look into the human psyche. The mind that brought us Malkovich and Adaptation ultimately delivers a hangdog love story saddled with a pat Hollywood ending. How conventionally un-Kaufman-like is that?

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