Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) / Romance-Sci Fi

MPAA Rated: R for language, drug content, and sexuality
Running Time: 108 min.

Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood   
Director: Michel Gondry

Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Pierre Bismuth
Review published September 19, 2004

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind proves that Hollywood can actually deliver romantic films that aren't saddled with formula antics and schmaltzy resolutions.  I suppose at its core, it is the old tale of "boy meets girl", but to limit it there would be doing Charlie Kaufman's (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) latest mesmerizing work a disservice.  Where Eternal Sunshine differs from the sea of mediocrity to come before is in well-rounded characters put into immensely intriguing situations -- no idealized husband-types, no Barbie doll cuties, and no embarrassing, corny contrivances for us to gush over.  Instead, Michel Gondry, who previously worked with Kaufman on the less successful Human Nature, envisions a bleaker landscape, with somber attitudes, honest humor, and a subdued approach that sees one of the most popular over-the-top actors being real, if just for a moment.  It's not a polished masterwork, as there is a rough-edged feel to the production, and a scattershot style to the ideas that comes from a comfort level that was never reached regarding which way to go with the material (indeed, there are many reports of script changes throughout the production), but this raw quality is also what eventually makes it so interesting.  Like any real relationship, there are good moments and bad, and the measure of success comes in how great those peak moments are, offsetting the lulls that inevitably occur. 

At its core, Eternal Sunshine explores misery as the by-product of happiness.  Those moments that make us feel the most fulfilled also cause us the most pain in the end, once we can no longer experience them.  The love of a treasured pet can bring a smile to your face, but only tears of sorrow once you realize that those joyful memories will no longer exist when that pet has passed away.  The same with relationships, where two people can fall madly in love with one another, only to see things turn sour in the end, and once the pain becomes too much to bear, the two people are parted in shambles, trying to piece their lives together again.  Kaufman's script supposes a world where people can go into a clinic and remove those painful memories altogether.  The broken marriage, the passing of a family member, the embarrassing faux pas -- all traces are removed for a fee, the painful memories never to be experienced again. 

In this world, there is Joel, a quiet and often lonely man who meets, falls in love with and eventually comes to despise Clementine, a neurotic, free-spirited girl that he ends up loathing for all of the reasons he came to love her.  Although initially wonderful, he later finds himself miserable when he's with her, and once she leaves him, he finds he is even more miserable when she's away.  Shortly thereafter, Joel discovers that Clementine treats him as if he doesn't exist-- a complete stranger, and later finds the reason -- she had all memory of him and their time together erased from her mind.  The thought of continuing to live carrying a love for a woman who no longer knows who he is and the love they both shared proves too tough to bear for Joel, so he also decides to have the same procedure performed on himself.  Unfortunately, Joel still has conscious thoughts while the procedure is being performed, and discovers that many of the memories of their relationship are too valuable for him to lose.  He soon finds himself trying valiantly to hold on to them, attempting to find someplace to hide them before they are all washed away forever.

Although the ideas are nothing too new, especially when compared to many of the recent Philip K. Dick films in the last 25 years regarding science and memories (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Paycheck), there is still very little that is stale about Eternal Sunshine.  It's not a film that is fully realized, and in some ways, there is a nonsensical quality about it all, with motivations that don't always make sense.  However, the fascination in the procedure, and the truthful portrayal of a love affair gone wrong is conceived of so acutely, the erasure of the lovelier memories does indeed become painful as you realize how much in love the two really must have been. 

The performances are nothing flashy, but honest, and Carrey impresses in his maturity, never having a moment where he hams it up, always staying in character, even during a scene of childhood regression which could easily have undone the entire tone of the film into absurdity.  The direction is decidedly dour in tone, in keeping with the cynical nature of the ultimate message, the difficulties in finding love, making it work, the decay of the relationship, and the devastating grief of the final collapse, especially when the parties still feel love deep down inside.

Gondry and Kaufman have created a moving, clever and completely fascinating work of art from very simple elements, which may go over the heads of those seeking a Jim Carrey laugh-fest, although his true fans should applaud the bold moves he has been making in his career.  Amid a plethora of cheesy romances, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stands out for taking chances, ambitious enough to try to be resonant, and unafraid of failing to hit all the right notes at the right times.  It's occasionally juvenile, obnoxious, irritating, infuriating, and nonsensical -- but when it works, the great moments more than make all of the bad points worthwhile -- which is, after all, the ultimate message of this film regarding relationships based on love, and the painful memories of those times that can no longer be.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo