In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry have hit upon a novel way to dump a lover: Erase the person—literally—from one’s memory. This is what happens with Joel (Jim Carrey), a reclusive malcontent, and Clementine (Kate Winslet), a yammerer with tinted hair, who meet in Montauk in the winter and embark on a touchy-feely courtship that involves lying on their backs on a frozen river at night and pointing out constellations. These oddballs are so compatible that the eventual rupture of the relationship comes as no surprise—nothing this perfect was meant to last. The end comes when Joel discovers that Clementine, utilizing a research outfit called Lacuna, has zapped him from her gray matter. He seeks her out at the bookstore where she works, but she no longer recognizes him or remembers anything about him. Miserable without her, he puts himself through the same treatment in order to forget her. But the movie—which is essentially structured as a love story in reverse—is all about the tenacity of memory. Even as Joel, zonked out and wearing an electrode helmet, undergoes the procedure, he’s struggling to hold onto the happiness that he recollects in jagged, pungent flashbacks. His deliverance is quickly turning into a nightmare that he’s frantic to climb out of.
Gondry is a celebrated video whiz who has done well by the likes of Björk and Beck; Kaufman, of course, is the screenwriter of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, two of the most conceptually audacious American movies of the past decade. Gondry and Kaufman collaborated a few years ago on the rather unfortunate primal-man comedy Human Nature, which was pretty much all concept. To be fully realized, Kaufman’s scripts—which also include the uneven Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, about game-show mogul Chuck Barris as a CIA hit man—require a director who can finesse his narrative loop-de-loops. Jonze, who has his own background in music video, made it look so easy that audiences (and not a few critics) often overlooked the films’ depth of feeling. (Adaptation is one of the best movies ever made about the maddening business of being a writer and trying to feel your way into a character, a mood.) Without Jonze’s sureness of touch, Kaufman’s scripts tend to come across as a trickster’s fancies.
To some extent, this is true of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (The title is a line from Alexander Pope.) Gondry, with multimedia artist Pierre Bismuth, originated the story and brought it to Kaufman, but it seems of a piece with his other scenarios, which are filled with characters morphing in and out of guises in squished space-time continuums. Gondry has been justly praised for his visual imagination; he sees things in the same way that Kaufman thinks: with a fractured hipsterism. But he may be the wrong director to bring out the full resonance of Kaufman’s mindscape, because his imagery heats up what is already overheated. Gondry isn’t so much collaborating with Kaufman as competing with him. When the wired-up Joel is flashing back to his bliss, it would have been quite enough for us to see those moments in all their sweet simplicity instead of jiggly and scrambled—as if we were watching a rock video about Joel’s neural pathways. For most of Eternal Sunshine, I found myself fighting off Gondry’s hyperactive intrusions in order to get at the melancholia at its core. Fortunately, the idea behind this movie is so richly suggestive that it carries you past Gondry’s image clutter. It’s the kind of film that could mean more to people after they’ve left the theater and thought about it awhile. Like Joel, they can summon up the good parts (and forget the bad).
“Eternal Sunshine is so richly suggestive that it carries you past the image clutter.”
Kaufman may seem like the kind of writer who makes it up as he goes along, but there’s a roundedness to what he does here, and not only in the way that everything in the story comes full circle. The characters do, too. For Joel and Clementine, their amnesia proves no match for their fated need to be together. Carrey tones down his usual herky-jerky persona much more successfully here than in The Truman Show or that flabby Oscar bid The Majestic (which were also about the hazards of memory); the role clearly touches something in him—a sense of personal loss, perhaps. Kate Winslet overdoes Clementine’s kookiness in the beginning, but then we begin to see how it functions as her armor. She’s a fragile kook. The rest of the first-rate cast includes Mark Ruffalo as a pompadoured Lacuna technician, Elijah Wood as his assistant, Tom Wilkinson as Lacuna’s doleful chief, and Kirsten Dunst as a lovestruck staffer. They seem assembled for a traditional comedy that nevertheless keeps spinning into something weirder. And yet Kaufman, despite his avant-garde ambitions, draws on a full catalogue of screwball-comedy conventions: For all his gloom, Joel, who bemoans the fact that he falls in love with any woman who shows him the slightest bit of attention, is a spiritual cousin to Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, or Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve—straight-arrow guys flummoxed by scattershot dames. The inevitability of romance was the theme of those comedies, and it’s the theme of Eternal Sunshine, too, but with a difference. This time, the love itself, when it’s finally won, isn’t glamorously appealing. It’s not even likely to last. But being in love is the only way these characters feel alive, and no void in their brains can triumph over that.