So Charlie Kauffman has a heart after all. In the aftermath of the puzzle box machinations of his scripts for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation – coolly constructed movies that played with viewers in a nice, easy way, and then let them off pretty scott-free afterwards – we get “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which yanks the rug out from under you about 20 minutes in and doesn’t quit scrambling reality until the very walls you’re surrounded, the chair you’re sitting in, becomes things of suspicion and barely-defined reality. And it all starts with a poor schmuck in love.
The schmuck in question is Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and as far as we can tell, when the film opens, he doesn’t have much of a life. Sleeping on a foldout couch in a generic apartment in some far-flung borough of New York, he gets up to ride the train to work on Valentine’s Day. Then, for no reason that he can discern, he dashes across to the other side of the tracks and rides up to Montauk. There, after wandering the beach in the freezing cold, he catches the eye of Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), who strikes up a conversation with him on the train back to the city. Their conversation stutters and jumps about – Joel’s a buttoned-up shell of a guy who has an easier time writing in his journal than speaking with people, while Clementine has a different mood for every second of the day, popping off like a string of firecrackers – but it moves forward with an inexorable sort of inevitability. By the time Joel is dropping Clementine off at her apartment, it makes perfect sense that she asks to just run inside for her toothbrush and then come stay at his place.
The Philip K. Dick part of the story kicks in later, when we’ve apparently leapt ahead to later in their relationship, when his quietude and her mania have infuriated each other to the point of heartbreak. No sooner has Joel found out that Clementine has actually had him erased from her memories by a medical firm called Lacuna than he’s having the operation himself, and Lacuna’s small band of slacker technicians (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood, hilariously inept) is systemically going through his head and zapping every last painful recollection of Clementine out of there. The rub is that Joel is aware (somewhat) of what’s going on, and realizes a little too late that he wants everything called off. But his physical body is dead to the world, so in his mind he has to run to Clementine and squirrel her away in remote pockets of memory where they won’t think to look for her (early childhood and such).
The body of “Eternal Sunshine” is, in effect, a chase, but unlike the chase scenarios that films like “Blade Runner,” Paycheck and Minority Report have constructed out of memory-obsessed Dick stories, Kaufman has here dug into a deeper, more heartfelt core and come up with one of the best films ever made about memory, its importance and malleability. The idea that the most important thing in your life, the only memory worth caring about, is being wiped clean by a couple of techies sitting in your apartment and drinking beer next to your sleeping body, is frightening in itself, but to watch it happen onscreen – objects are stealthily erased from scenes as they are being played out, physical objects shift position with dreamlike fluidity, characters faces are blurred, distorted or wiped clean – is nothing short of existential horror. Dick would have been proud.
Much of the credit here must also go to music video pioneer Michel Gondry, who somehow resists the urge to wow us with his obviously-massive technical talent and keeps the machinery hidden. A deft use of CGI and old-fashioned camera trickery (courtesy of Ellen Kuras, who provides the film’s fantastically sharp and naturalistic cinematography) ensures that for most of the film, viewers will be kept guessing as to where precisely they are, how far they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.
All of this, of course, would be just showmanship, if Gondry and Kaufman hadn’t kept the film as grounded as it is – everything is just too believable. Joel and Clementine live in places that could use a good dusting, and neither of them particularly enjoys their jobs, and most scenes are shot under lousy fluorescents. Best of all, Lacuna isn’t some gleaming white-and-chrome vision of scientific genius, it’s a small, crappy office in Queens someplace where the waiting room magazines are likely a year out of date and the receptionist isn’t sure if they’re on your HMO. And yet, in the midst of all this drudgery and sadness, love has grown between two people utterly unsuitable for each other. How appropriate that one of the most daring films to hit screens in years is brought to a level of true mastery not by a great idea or nifty plot device (see, again, “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich”), but by a simple love story.
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