Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

March, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Michel Gondry

Starring:Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Jane Adams, David Cross, and Thomas Jay Ryan


Birds do it; bees do it; even educated fleas do it…and so did Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as well as Barbra Striesand and George Segal                  in the Owl and The Pussycat, (not to mention the team of Cary Grant & Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby); it's one of Hollywood's staples, the romantic comedy which revolves around (1) a vibrant, free-spirited young women whose emotional entanglements and carnal appetites often underscore an essential vulnerability (2) who meets an emotionally repressed man that initially succumbs to her charms, but (3) hates himself for it and dumps her only to  (4) struggle in the final reel to recapture her affection when he comes to recognize that she's the one who makes him complete. Prodigious screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) takes this conventional plot and subjects its components to his 3 cushion bank-shot style of storytelling in director Michel Gondry's visually inventive take on love and longing among the denizens of Gotham's downtown set. 

Nebbish Joel Barish, (Jim Carrey) meets vampish Clementine Kruczynski, (Kate Winslet) on the wintry shoreline of Montauk Point; she's instantly charmed by his little-boy-lost vulnerability, and they fall in love. But do they really?  Joel's take on reality warrants closer scrutiny when he finds himself slipping in and out of situations that suggest the lines of that old love song "Where or When?". But a chance reference to the mysterious Dr. Howard Mierzwiak presents itself and Joel learns that his new-found love really does exist, though she's tired of him and has decided to avail herself of the aforesaid Doctor's therapy which has erased Joel from her memory. In a fit of self-righteous pique, Joel demands that the doctor do the same for him too, but mid-way through the procedure, he has a change of heart, which leaves him struggling to retain recollections of a painful romantic past even as he labors to understand why Clementine tired of him in the first place…

Carrey does a pleasantly low-keyed turn here as the introverted Joel, eschewing the bug-eyed, manic sensibility he's brought to so many of his roles. He's genuinely vulnerable and quietly charming as a result, while Winslet, (slimmed-down and radiant) is as beguiling a lost soul as one is likely to find in any movie heroine this year. Kaufman's dialogue resonates with the kind of loopy patois for which he's justly famous, enabling the cast to be perfectly credible and genuinely funny at the same time. Gondry's visual skill in presenting memory loss and the fractured nature of Joel's journey into a past he's trying desperately to reconstruct presents the audience with scenes that resemble the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which must be quickly assembled to keep pace with the supporting characters as they feverishly work to disassemble and re-assemble these star-crossed lovers. 

A splendid cast including Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson help Kaufman populate his lop-sided universe with the kind of semi-strange people that seem to naturally gravitate south of Manhattan's 23rd Street, making their frequently bizarre but always earnest behavior seem rather more normal than it actually is. This is truly Kaufman Country, and visitors will find characters here to rival the quirkiest of his earlier screen personae. Solid performances, amusing and occasionally insightful dialogue, an intriguing presentation of the storyline and stunning visuals--sounds perfect, doesn't it? And yet…

Kaufman may be to contemporary film comedy what Elmore Leonard is to current crime fiction--an inventor of offbeat characters who utter the cleverest possible lines, yet ultimately wind up not saying very much. There's nothing wrong with favoring style over substance of course; good movies--and occasionally great ones--often make that choice; but when they do, the leads had better be awfully interesting, and the morose Joel and his feckless Clementine just aren't. While Gondry presents their "find each other, lose each other, rediscover each other" story in interesting cinematic terms, these characters just don't command the kind of attention that makes the resolution of their problems worth sitting through for a couple of hours in the dark. Like his earlier Adaptation, Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine runs out of gas before the final reel; what begins as a fresh, beguiling tale ends as an overlong exposition of a rather conventional commercial material served up as hip urban chic. 

The verdict? Consistently clever, but ultimately uninteresting.


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