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Film review

A film that boggles the mind

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman does it again. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he creates a sci-fi-tinged romance that teases the viewer's brain.

Published March 18, 2004

[Photo: Focus Films]
Jim Carrey, right, and Kate Winslet bring a new dimension to love and loss in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
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It's increasingly evident that screenplays should now be divided into three categories: those that are original, those adapted from other sources and those concocted from who knows where by Charlie Kaufman.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the latest mind-bender from Kaufman, just when our synapses were settling back into order after Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Human Nature and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. As complex as those head trips were, Kaufman's methodically fragmented take on the persistence of memory, despite our yearnings to forget, makes each seem elementary by comparison.

If any of those previous films turned you off, don't bother with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Ignore that Jim Carrey is the star. Don't go just to see attractive young actors Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo. Carrey isn't playing for laughs, and the others are playing too edgy to be considered cute celebrities.

On second thought, because impulsively changing one's mind is the central theme of the movie, go see it. Anyone who regularly settles for only the superficial in movies needs to experience a film like this.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind expands the parameters of cinema, creating a new narrative that isn't based on editing (like 21 Grams), but upon ideas that germinate either headlong or hesitantly. Chronology is demolished. Reality and memory collide. The movie can be vexing, yet the lasting effect is rewarding, a sense that we've accomplished something by understanding it and, for some, enduring it. (Several viewers walked out of a recent screening.)

In his best dramatic performance, Carrey plays Joel Barish, an obviously troubled man who skips work for a train ride to Montauk, N.Y., on a snowy Valentine's Day. He just got dumped by a lover, his depression made clear as Kaufman allows us to hear his thoughts. Joel sees an attractive woman named Clementine (Winslet) but can't bring himself to speak to her. She takes the initiative on the return trip, chipping away at Joel's defenses in a 15-minute prologue that doesn't seem to mean much. It will.

We eventually learn that Joel and Clementine had a nice romance that soured. Clementine was so fed up that she paid an agency to erase Joel from her mind, a science-fiction angle brought down to earth by the characters doing the erasing. Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) is a compassionate sort, relieving misery for a waiting room full of customers. His receptionist (Dunst) is suitably cheery. The erasers (Ruffalo and Wood) are stoned computer geeks who make themselves at home while patients sleep so they can wake up unaware that anything happened.

When Joel learns what Clementine did, he asks Dr. Mierzwiak to erase her from his memory. The process becomes the movie, turning an already challenging time-shuffle into a phantasmagorical journey through Joel's consciousness, from childhood traumas to the last time he saw his darling Clementine. ("You are lost and gone forever," as the song goes.) Along the way, Joel realizes he wants out of the process. He doesn't want to forget the women he loves. That's when things get really freaky.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - the title comes from an Alexander Pope poem about forgetting a romance - wouldn't be possible without a director capable of transferring Kaufman's limitless imagination into film reality. Michel Gondry is obviously on the same titled plane of thought, after teaming with the writer for 2001's odd, underrated Human Nature. Gondry is a music video veteran, and for once that experience comes in handy. He composes memorable images, especially as Joel's memory literally crumbles, allowing Kaufman's hopscotch narrative to lead the way.

Carrey's performance makes one wish his face weren't so familiar. An actor who isn't famous for goofy comedy would, for this performance, be called the next big thing in film drama. Carrey's reputation may hurt him. Ace Ventura fans will know what Adam Sandler's fans felt after Punch-Drunk Love, while some critics will call it a fluke or a failure. It's neither.

Winslet is Carrey's equal in a role that changes as often as Clementine's hair color. For all its sci-fi stuff and Bergmanesque imagery, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is foremost a love story. That's something Kaufman has seemed cynical about before - only the weird survived in his other scripts - and he still isn't sure if romance is possible, judging from this film. But he creates a breakup that's absolutely unforgettable.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Grade: A

Director: Michel Gondry

Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, David Cross, Jane Adams

Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman

Rating: R; profanity, sexual situations, mature themes

Running time: 108 min.

[Last modified May 5, 2004, 10:59:36]

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