Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

A unique romantic comedy, unfettered by the normal expectations of the genre, is a rare and wondrous thing. That's precisely what director Michel Gondry, working from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adapatation), delivers. Without being too offbeat or esoteric, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind nevertheless manages to convey romance without forcing the mind to shift into neutral or dragging the characters through a formulaic structure where chemistry becomes the most important asset.

That's not to say that there's no non-verbal connection between stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet; merely that the success of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does not rely upon it. The writing is strong enough and the approach embodies ample originality for the effectiveness of the interaction to serve as an enhancement. Plus, this isn't a romance in the traditional sense of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets back girl. It's more of a Woody Allen kind of love affair, where the trajectory from beginning to end is bumpy and unpaved.

Joel Barish (Carrey) is a meek, unassuming man who discovers his perfect other half in uninhibited Clementine Kruczynski (Winslet). Their relationship ignites quickly, but the things that initially draw them together become hurdles and barriers. In the end, Clementine decides that Joel is too boring for her, and Joel concludes that Clementine is too needy. The break-up is abrupt and painful - so painful, in fact, that Clementine seeks the services of Dr. Howard Mierzqwiak (Tom Wilkinson), a specialist in memory erasure. For a fee, he and his associates Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood) will eliminate all of an individual's memories of another person. Once Clementine has undergone this procedure to forget Joel, he decides to follow her lead. But his memory proves to be a tricky place, because the past images of Clementine refuse to be cleanly expunged.

The story is told non-chronologically, with many of the more imaginative sequences being set deep in Joel's mind, as he invades his own memories to keep them from slipping away. (Here is where the film's inventive set design sparkles.) Somewhere along the way, he realizes that many of his recollections are too precious to give up, but, by that time, he is already committed. Meanwhile, as all of this is going on in Joel's head, we follow Clementine as she tries to adjust to her new life, and get to know the people who are working on Joel, including Howard, Stan, Patrick, and their receptionist/nurse, Mary (Kirsten Dunst).

Those who have been exposed to Kaufman's previous screenplays (especially Malkovich, Adaptation, and Human Nature, which was also directed by Gondry) recognize that he never takes the story where one expects it to go. That's precisely what happens here, as he toys with the boundaries between reality and fantasy, and makes some probing points about the malleability of memory and the importance of the past in defining the future. The film also doesn't ignore the ethical implications of what Howard is doing. His motives may be pure, but how much control does he have over what he has unleashed?

Of late, Jim Carrey has been doing an increasing number of straight, dramatic roles, and this is arguably his best work to date. Carrey manages to obfuscate so effectively his own larger-than-life personality, that, when he's on screen, we see Joel, not Jim. Kate Winslet, despite often being associated with period pieces, is at home inhabiting a contemporary character who changes the color of her hair more easily than her wardrobe. Carrey and Winslet develop the kind of strong rapport that makes us root for their characters to unite at the end. Memory loss or not, these two belong together.

The supporting cast is comprised of performers of some note. Elijah Wood, most recently known as Frodo Baggins, is the less-than-heroic Patrick, whose primary goal in wiping people's memories is to capture a girlfriend. (He uses his knowledge of Joel's successes with Clementine to insinuate himself in to her life.) Mark Ruffalo (In the Cut) is the wired geek who's carrying on an affair with Mary, the receptionist who in turn wants Howard. Kirsten Dunst takes the opportunity to loosen up between Spider Man movies, while Tom Wilkinson rounds out the cast.

With films like Memento, 50 First Dates, and the execrable Paycheck, memory loss has become an increasingly fertile ground for movies to plow. By using a slightly different approach to the subject than those films (but still staying in the Twilight Zone), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind carves out its own niche. This is unlike any other film I have seen. And, although I value originality in motion pictures, the primary reason I'm recommending Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with so much enthusiasm is because it's a great romance. It's willingness to flout conventions and eschew formulas is just one of many things to celebrate about this charmingly eccentric movie.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (United States, 2004)

Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Cinematography: Ellen Kuras
Music: Jon Brion
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Ranked #9 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2004
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2004-03-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1