Ryan’s Vintage Review: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)

Eternal SunshineIt begins where it ends and the opportunity to right wrongs is directly in front of them. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play Joel and Clementine, polar-opposite lovers who’ve recently split because they just can’t stand one another anymore. She’s done an impulsive thing too…paying a memory-erasing company called Lacuna Inc. to remove all visions of Joel from her mind. When mutual friends tell him about this unforgivable act (which isn’t fair to Clementine, but it’s necessary…or the movie would be over after the first reel), he goes the childish route and decides to have her erased from his own memory. Trouble is, he wants to hold onto some memories, which monkeys up the works. There’s your set-up for the latest astounding Charlie Kaufman story and screenplay, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Michel Gondry is at the helm (he also directed the wacky writer’s Human Nature script) and manages to blend romance, comedy, drama, and science fiction into one brilliant film.

You can call this an epic of the mind. The concept is not simple and what they have achieved on a $35 million budget is extraordinary. The movie is set in the present day (very present since they even refer to Valentine’s Day 2004) and the careful planning that had to go into this non-linear story is probably going to sail past most viewers. As with Citizen Kane, you’re not aware of the visual tricks in a Charlie Kaufman movie, even though they’re always there. Gondry could have gone the mind-blowing Salvador Dali route and alienated half the audience, but he manages to make the “I’m inside my own mind” stuff work from start to finish. Special effects serve the story (imagine that). This is just as surreal as the other Kaufman scripts have been, but it’s rooted firmly in reality. This is a love story with great power. I was hooked from the first scene where Carrey says a line in voice-over that I could have written about myself: “Why do I always fall in love with a woman who pays the slightest bit of attention to me?”

Charlie Kaufman must be a hopeless romantic; a dreamer who has loved from afar, yet not had the courage to pursue. John Cusack in Being John Malkovich is the surrogate Kaufman, wanting Catherine Keener so badly that he ruins his own life to get her. Nicolas Cage doesn’t so much love Meryl Streep in Adaptation as he wants to reach out to help her, only he’s too self-conscious of his own imperfections and perceived failures to even talk to her. Now we’ve got Carrey, who—for all his worldwide popularity—often plays outsiders trying to fit in. Lloyd in Dumb And Dumber, the Riddler in Batman Forever, Chip in The Cable Guy are all men who do crazy things when they can’t find acceptance. He might be playing the shy guy to Winslet’s free spirit, but he’s still yearning to belong.

The flip side is how every Kaufman script has a character who’s ultra-confident (or blissfully free of guile). Keener in Being John Malkovich, Donald Kaufman in Adaptation, and Winslet in this latest CK mind-job fill those shoes. A writer with this man’s success in the motion picture business must not not be as tortured as the characters he creates. Or does believing that prove I know nothing about the delicate temperament in Hollywood? If his remarkable vision as a screenwriter comes to life by living in a quiet room and playing out visions of himself as lonely and socially inept, okay. We’re the ones who benefit from his neuroses with these one-of-a-kind screenplays. A confident Kaufman might lose his edge as a screenwriter, although that seems impossible. This guy is too out-of-the-ordinary to be ordinary.

The odd thing is that his basic themes are fairly generic. Even in the Human Nature script, his characters simply want to be accepted for their differences. Being John Malkovich plays off the idea that we all want to be somebody else. With the exception of Donald, everyone in Adaptation is disconnected and wants badly to find someone who understands them. Now we have a story about how we want to forget all about that love affair gone bad, even if we still fight to hold onto the good memories. This movie comes along at the perfect time for me because I’ve been discussing that very idea with a ‘Net friend lately. In trying to figure out where I’ve gone wrong in the land of ladies, I’ve been happy to share both good stories and bad. I would never want my memories of past girlfriends erased, even if visions of delight must share airtime with visions of pain.

Would you? This film is bound to instigate discussion afterward, especially between lovers who see it together. I’m not sure if this is the perfect romantic comedy for every couple. Either it is…or it’s the worst. For those who are happy together, you’ll laugh a lot and you might appreciate more than ever how great your lives are when the movie is over. For those who are not happy together (or particularly for those who have just been through a break-up), this might be tough to watch because it’s so truthful. On the other hand, the Carrey/Winslet relationship feels so genuine, even when his memories of her start to change—such as when the following lines of dialogue come out of their mouths in the scene where we see (a revised version of) their first meeting:

Clementine: This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon.

Joel: I know.

Clementine: What do we do?

Joel: Enjoy it.

That exchange proved they had finally grown as a couple. Sure, it’s all happening in his head and the real Clementine doesn’t even know that any such conversation ever existed, but the melancholy hope of those lines brought a genuine smile to my face. Carrey and Winslet have starred in a beautiful romantic movie with plenty of big laughs.

When I first saw the groovy trailer for Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, I liked Winslet immediately. Clementine is forever changing her hair colour, from blue to red to orange to green. Somehow, she always looks amazing. We often talk about the beauty of movie stars, but this is the kind of woman I can look at all day. Gotta love the coloured hair and the devil-may-care attitude, which are not attributes I usually look for in a woman. If I shuffled past this version of Kate Winslet in my neighbourhood, I’d be just as smitten as Joel is. Here’s a classic example of where a woman can dull the glamour and let her genuine charm shine through. Winslet is not the usual coat-rack starlet, but I’ve always felt she was a curvy babe anyway. Until this film, I never felt so much admiration for both her acting talent and her sex appeal. The dialed-down Carrey doesn’t look as dashing as he has in mainstream movies, but he makes a good match for this offbeat woman. This is a case of opposites attracting (a theory that I don’t generally believe in) and seeming to belong together.

Lest I forget about the other actors, they get some major screen time too. Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and Elijah Wood play Lacuna employees who take care of the procedure right in Joel’s bedroom. Wilkinson is Dr. Mierzwiak, the soft-spoken man in charge of the business and a fella with some secrets you won’t see coming. All these actors are as good here as they usually are (although Wood might be the weak link, sniveling after a girl as if she’s holding the One Ring). I was starting to wonder why Ruffalo, Wood, and Dunst were in the movie so often because their scenes—while quirky and funny—are distracting. I liked Carrey and Winslet so much that getting away from them seemed like a big mistake. However, we eventually learn some sinister things about Lacuna Inc., and a revelation by Wilkinson late in the picture puts the scenes I was questioning in fascinating context. I’d still love to have seen a little bit more of the leads, but the importance of the supporting cast becomes clear once the movie is over. I can live with this kind of weakness when they find a reason for it.

Charlie Kaufman is the most interesting and original writer working in movies today, bar none. He takes a nugget of an idea and tangents the story off into weird directions, but always plugs into essential human wants and desires. He and Gondry have tapped into intense primal feelings about love and relationships. This movie nails how vivid the happy times are, just as it shows us how awful the bad times can be. Try as you might, I don’t think you’ll guess exactly how Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind will end. The final conversation between Joel and Clementine achieves a certain sublime perfection. As much as I was rooting for them throughout the film, I perked up all the more when they’d seemed to accept what might (or might not) happen in their future. But it’s not all roses either. Would it interest you to know that the IMDb claims a scene from the original script showed an older Clementine going back to have Joel erased and has had this procedure performed on her several times? That would have given the film a darker edge and would also reinforce the Mobeius strip theory I had when I walked out of the theatre. It ends where it begins and the opportunity to right wrongs is directly in front of them.

copyright Ryan Ellis 2014

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