Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michel Gondry (Review)

2004 promises us some great movies, but by year’s end, I doubt we’ll have experienced anything quite like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

What was the last movie I saw that left me completely and absolutely enamored with it as I walked out of the theatre? Maybe Bubba Ho-Tep, but as much as I loved that movie, my feelings, nay, my love for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is something else altogether. Very nearly everything in this movie floored me — from the brilliant acting to the clever yet poignant script, and of course, the amazing direction and visuals, which are as dreamlike and imaginative as anything likely to grace theatres this year. 2004 promises us some great movies, but by year’s end, I doubt we’ll have experienced anything quite like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

As much as I’d love to sit down and reveal the story for you, with all of its wonderful twists and intricacies, it really is best enjoyed if you go in knowing as little as possible. But this much I can tell you, and not spoil too much of the discovery. Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) is a complete loser, a schmuck in a dead-end job living a life quickly going nowhere. The only bright spot in his life is Clementine Kruczynski, a free-spirited but emotionally unstable young woman. But for all of the spontaneity and romance she brings into his life, their relationship is growing increasingly damaged and marred.

Joel’s world comes crashing down when he learns that Clementine has gone to Lacuna, a company that specializes in the removal of painful memories, and has had all trace of him wiped from her mind. Betrayed and spiteful, he demands they do the same for him, figuring he’s better off without her — in every way, shape, and form. He collects everything that reminds him of Clementine, all of the mementos acquired during their time together, so that Lacuna can “map” his memories of her and undo the damage. And then the procedure begins, with Joel wandering through his head and seeing the relationship get stripped away piece by piece.

At first, he relives all of the bad times — the arguments, the boredom, the betrayals, and the final moment of anger that spelled their end. But as the process continues and he goes further back, he begins stumbling across happy memories — the first time they met, the silly dates they went on, and the times when he was perfectly content in her presence.

Unfortunately, Lacuna’s procedure doesn’t discriminate between the good and bad experiences, and wipes them all. As he sees each one of the happy moments fade away — an experience convincingly conveyed by Michel Gondry’s amazing visuals — Joel begins to realize the horrible mistakes he made and rediscovers his love. However, there’s no way he can tell Lacuna to stop, and so he does the next best thing. He grabs Clementine and flees to other memories, memories from his childhood where Lacuna hopefully can’t find them, where they can try to figure out some way to stop the procedure before she’s gone forever.

Although Carrey, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and director Gondry are all brilliant in their own ways, nothing in their ouevres up to this point had prepared me for what they accomplished with this movie. Carrey is best known as the raunchy and rubberfaced comedian from such lowbrow gems as Ace Ventura and Dumb And Dumber and, for those who remember, the classic In Living Color TV series. But Carrey gives a subtle and moving performance as the wounded Barish (with a few flashes of comedic overacting when Joel risks getting trapped in his childhood memories).

There were times when I honestly forgot that I was watching the Jim Carrey, so far removed was this from his usual schtick. It’s refreshing when actors give you something you’ve never seen from them before, especially in this day and age where it’s so easy for even the greats to become typecast, and I hope Carrey gets some recognition come awards time (much like Bill Murray did for his work in Lost In Translation).

Supporting Carrey are able performances from Kate Winslet as the troubled yet intoxicating Clementine and the Lacuna staff — Tom Wilkinson as Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the procedure’s inventor, Mark Ruffalo and post-LOTR Elijah Wood as two of his rather incompetent assistants, and Kirsten Dunst as the ditzy receptionist with a secret. However, and not to disparage the other performers, Eternal Sunshine is clearly Carrey’s movie and he does a wonderful job throughout.

Charlie Kaufman is already well-known for his twisted and twisting scripts, namely the similarly-surreal Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (which, admittedly, I have yet to see). But whereas Being John Malkovich, for all of its mindbending brilliance, left the viewer on a rather troubling note, Eternal Sunshine is surprisingly uplifting and poignant, albeit in a very surreal way. The film’s story (based on an idea by Gondry and Pierre Bismuth) is ultimately one about the stupid mistakes we make with the ones we love, the fact that we need forgiveness and acceptance, and that relationships and lives are made up of both good and bad experiences — and we can’t have one without the other. Try to take away the bad, and we risk becoming much poorer, thinner people, as Joel begins to find out.

There are a few places where the story stumbles, usually involving the subplots that pop up amongst the Lacuna crew. There’s one in particular involving Mary that, while not a bad idea per se, feels somewhat undeveloped, as if tacked merely to contrast with Joel and Clementine’s story — but even in its nascent form it has some affecting moments, especially between Mary and Mark Ruffalo’s character.

However, if you want to talk about the film’s cleverness and imagination, it’s imperative to talk about Michel Gondry’s direction. As anyone who has seen his Directors Label DVD can attest, Gondry has developed a distinctive and captivating visual style in his music videos for Björk, The White Stripes, Cibo Matto, the Chemical Brothers, and Kylie Minogue, to name a few. But as great as those videos might be (and some of them are quite mindblowing), nothing prepared me for the visual wonders on display throughout Eternal Sunshine.

What Gondry has done, as he takes the viewer through Joel’s mashed-up memory, is create an imaginary world that’s as vivid, detailed, and realized as anything I’ve ever seen on the big screen (including the Lord Of The Rings movies). Of course, it helps that much of the movie takes place in Joel’s crumbling memory, which allows for quite a bit of creative license, but it also presents a new set of challenges.

How can you convey the confusion and bizzareness that our minds conjure up as we dream? How do create the sensation of a dissolving memory? With CGI? With some tricky editing and crazy sets? I don’t know, but Gondry’s given us a very good example. The movie utilizes a bevy of special effects — modern effects like CGI as well as classic ones like rear projection and forced perspective — and all in the service of the story. They feel wholly organic and realistic, and Gondry’s often lo-fi and vintage approaches actually heighten the film’s surreality.

When Joel is trying to chase Clementine in his memory, hoping to repair the damage he did, the scene constantly reverses itself on him. Regardless of which direction he runs, he always ends up where he started, while she gets farther away (it’s somewhat reminiscent of the subway scene in The Matrix Revolutions, only far better).

When Joel winds up in his childhood as a whining 4-year-old desperate for his mother’s attention, Gondry uses forced perspective and large sets to convey the sense that he really has regressed — and Carrey’s hilarious performance only heightens the experience.

And as Lacuna’s procedure nears completion, his memory literally begins to crumble — houses fall apart around him, people’s faces become blank surfaces or vanish altogether, and rooms begin to disappear one piece at a time. Watching it is enough to make you wonder if your mind isn’t going a little loopy as well.

In some ways, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind reminds me of Punch-Drunk Love. Both films feature amazing visual styles (though Eternal Sunshine is certainly far more elaborate), both feature unexpected acting choices in roles that turn out to be absolutely perfect for them, and both are unabashedly romantic movies but are most certainly not “romance” movies in the conventional, Hollywood wisdom.

Neither movie focuses on the glamorous, typical view of love, but rather on its hectic and illogical side, on the side that makes absolutely no sense at all. Even though neither movie is “realistic” in most senses of the word, there is certainly something very “Real” and “True” about both of their stories, regardless of how surreal, disjointed, and hallucinatory they’re presented. And considering just how surreal and disjointed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind gets at times, it’s a true testament to the film’s quality that it proves so affecting and wondrous in my book.

2004 isn’t even a third over yet, but I think I’ve already found my pick for film of the year.

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