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By Admin | March 22, 2004

“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.

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  1. Shawn says:

    @Alex on wed: I’m a couple months late to answer this, but I wouldn’t call that a plot hole. To me it suggested this: that during Clementine’s erasure process, she possibly resisted at the end as well and using what she knew about Joel (or maybe what she knew that Joel knew about her) she implanted a rendezvous point in her own mind, just like Joel. The fact that Joel planted the same rendezvous point only goes to show how well they really knew and understood each other, and also how important there first meeting was to each other. They both could do little more then plant a final desperate location in their psyche, and against all odds they picked the same place and met up again. I find the against-all-odds nature of their “first” meeting to be one of the best aspects of the film, especially considering that it doesn’t seem that special or important on the first viewing.

    This is truly a movie that gets better everytime, and I am sorry this critic had to choose the contrarian route and not let himself get wrapped up in the scripts dream logic. Just because some things are left open to interpretation doesn’t mean they don’t make sense.

  2. Hector says:

    @Alex on wed: It’s been a while since i saw the movie but how joel’s clementine can know that real clementine is going to be in a specific place next morning. Well first, joel’s clementine is in fact the condensation of everything joel knows about her, what she like and hates, her past and future (since surely in some point of their lives together they talked about each one future). So I dont see why joel wouldn’t know clementine’s routine, of course that knowledge would have the face and voice of clementine in joel’s mind.

  3. Kim says:

    According to the Wikipedia article, the opening scene was moved forward to make the woman more appealing. I guess it’s a matter of taste, but I couldn’t understand either what the guy’s problem was on the one hand (well, that sort of got cleared up later) or what in the world was attractive about the woman. Through almost the whole film, I was swinging between wondering what in the world was attractng him to her and thinking that some-one like this will grab at any-thing. It made it hard for me to get invovled in the film. On the other hand, the mystery aspect did keep me waching.

  4. Alex says:

    This is my number one favourite film of all time, but after multiple viewings I do feel I have found a plot hole which I hope someone can clarify. I find one of the most moving and poignant aspects of the film is the fact that it begins with Joel and Clementine reuniting with one another even after both have had their memories erased.
    As most people have rightly stated the dialogue and interaction between the two characters during the erasure process are the product of Joel’s imagination. As the last memory is finally erased, Clementine whispers to Joel one of the film’s most memorable lines, ‘Meet me in Montauk’. Joel thus wakes having forgotten everything but is filled with an inexplicable impetus to go to Montauk where he meets Clementine for what he falsely believes to be the first time. But this rendezvous was suggested by an imagined Clementine, or rather, what Joel thought Clementine would have said in a made up memory. Joel is thus organising the meeting place with himself within his own mind, so how would the real world Clementine have known to go to Montauk the next morning?
    This unfortunately kind of spoilt the magic of the film for me, so I was really hoping I’d missed something. Anyone?

  5. LaTonya says:

    I really liked this film, and its not just because i’m a Jim Carry fan (silly roles aren’t automatically crap). I just felt that the dialouge and relationship was so realistic I couldn’t help but become engrosed in the story. And when Joel stopped trying to hide I was dissapointed. I guess I like it because its well put together. Good story and characters, an unexpected twist, with drama, comedy, and a happy ending by my standards. Maybe if the reviewer watched the movie with a more open mind he might be able to enjoy it.

  6. Max says:

    @joel fagerberg:

    It is very stupid to say this about someone who does not agree with you. I say YOU must have a rather low IQ for you can’t understand not everyone has the same taste and sees things like you. An intelligent person knows the universe is purely subjective. If you cannot comprehend that, you are obviously not smart. Sorry.

  7. Shelby says:

    When Joel begins talking to Clementine in the midst of the erasing process, Clementine’s responses (in his memories) are what he would think Clementine would say in those situations. Memories are not just about the exact scene that you recall; they also have to do with thinking and processing. Much like when you imagine a situation that happened previously and say, “What if?” You can imagine different scenarios within a memory.

  8. Joel Barish says:

    Sir.. This is not “remembered Joel and remembered Clementine” trying to escape the erasing of the memories, its Joel, thinking (not a him remembered or a him from the past) and Clementine isn’t a remembered Clementine, she is Clementine as he sees her, (you know, when you know someone and put focus on more of their good aspects and ignore their bad ones, that influences what kind of light you see that person in, this is the Clementine Joel sees).

  9. joel fagerberg says:

    you must have a rather low IQ

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