“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.”
-Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard”
To a movie resume that includes stints as a pet detective and cable guy, Jim Carrey can now add professional experience as a vestal. Though I have to admit to being perplexed on a number of related points. For example, I am suitably impressed that the title for Charlie Kaufman’s latest script was plucked from line 209 of a 366 line poem by Alexander Pope published in 1717. At the same time, I am unable to make the slightest sense of the verse from which the title was taken or to see how it pertains in any way to this picture.
Carrey continues to grow as a performer but I’m not sure that even a dramatic actor of his ability is equal to the role of vestal. I’ll save you the trouble: Webster’s defines vestal as “a virgin consecrated to the Roman goddess Vesta and to the service of watching the sacred fire perpetually kept burning on her altar.” What Carrey’s character does for a living is never spelled out in the film but I feel confident the phrase “sacred fire” isn’t mentioned in the job description.
I also fail to understand what all the critical hubbub is about. Directed by Michel Gondry, who collaborated with Kaufman on the acclaim-free 2002 movie Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a one gimmick affair that’s periodically touching and clever but never the heartbreaking work of staggering genius its reviews would lead one to expect.
Memento, Groundhog Day and 1983’s Betrayal-the film that started the reverse chronology rage-influenced Kaufman, I suspect, far more than the poetry of Alexander Pope. What we’ve got here is not a lot more than a thinking person’s 50 First Dates.
The film offers the story of a relationship told from a point just after which it has ended back through time to the instant in which it began. The playwright Harold Pinter did precisely the same thing about a quarter century ago in the play on which Betrayal was based. Carrey plays a shy shlub by the name of Joel. Kate Winslet is Clementine, the boozy ball of fire he’s lived with for the last two years. Early on Joel learns that Clementine hasn’t just left him. She’s paid to have all trace of him erased from her memory.
Tom Wilkinson costars as Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the creator of a process capable of targeting the parts of the brain in which memories of a given subject are stored and zapping the metaphysical little buggers one by one with the help of a laptop and humongous colander-like helmet. Joel decides to respond in kind and signs up to have Clementine deleted from his own hard drive.
For most of the movie, Carrey is unconscious as the procedure is being carried out. What we watch on the screen is the succession of memories which are being erased. At first these scenes simply reenact events as they originally took place and, for a time, it’s interesting to count the ways Kaufman and Gondry can come up with to suggest the effect of a set disintegrating even as action unfolds on it.
As he did with the script for Adaptation, though, Kaufman shoots himself in the foot as the third act approaches. Suddenly what begin to unspool are no longer fixed memories but bits of surreal theater in which the remembered Joel and Clementine inexplicably acquire the capacity to think in the present while playing out the past. Despite being rendered deeply unconscious, Carrey experiences a change of heart and decides he wants to forget the whole thing. Since he can’t tell the doctor, he has remembered Joel enlist the help of remembered Clementine and two conspire to hide precious recollections where they are unlikely to be detected.
By this point, the movie has not only violated its own loopy logic, it simply has gone on too long. Watching Carrey and Winslet race through memory after memory trying to stay one step ahead of Mierzwiak’s big eraser eventually loses a good deal of its novelty.
Both performers do an effective job of generating an emotional center for the film and Carrey’s desperate fight to prevent Winslet from fading from his life forever does tug at the heart but at heart, let’s face it, the mechanism at work here is anything but cutting edge. It’s the oldest literary device of all, the sweet sorrow of parting. In Kaufman’s latest, dying simply has been replaced by forgetting. It’s Love Story with frontal lobotomies.
Which isn’t to say it’s not a larky little blast of film fun. It is. The reality, however, is that Hollywood is such an idea poor place Kaufman tends to get more credit than he deserves for work which only occasionally rises above the level of mind games and showy sleight of hand.
His latest is not unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It isn’t even unlike anything you’ve seen in the past year. Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, for example, addressed many of the same themes, represented a similar foray into sci fi-art film fusion and proved a far more lyrical, moving and contemplative experiment which the filmmaker’s audience mysteriously overlooked.
My advice: Feel free to forget this fable of memory cleansing but remember to hit a video store on the way home.