Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
In case you hadn't noticed, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has built his career, and his scripts, on a conceit that minds are made to be looked into. In "Being John Malkovich" he took us literally inside a mind, then dumped us by the side of the New Jersey Turnpike after our fifteen minutes of, well, a kind of pornographic visit into someone else's brain. In "Adaptation" he divided poor Nicolas Cage into twin brains, one an id and the other an ego, or rather a superego.
Now, working with director Michel Gondry on "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (a title that comes from a line by Alexander Pope), he explores the fantasy we all have of somehow erasing our humiliations, our hurts, our stabs of lost and betrayed love. Jim Carrey is Joel Barish, lonely commuter from Rockville Center, Long Island. He meets Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), who works at the local Barnes & Noble. But wait: they have met already, some time ago; they had a mad relationhip, fueled by Clementine's energy that drags Joel along through mad and crazy acts - and it has all somehow ended horribly. As the episodes in this collage of a movie begin to accrete, we begin to make sense of it.
At some point Clementine has had all memory of Joel erased from her mind by an outfit called Lacuna, Inc., run by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his assistants, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst. There's no need to suspend our disbelief - they treat their work as you and I might handle our jobs at, say, a dental office. And now Joel, hurt beyond bearing by Clementine's leaving, signs up to have all his memories of her erased as well. That's the premise of the film, and director Gondry and his actors have parlayed it into a breathtaking tour de force. It is a film that examines how love is built, but knows that without memory there can be no love.
Part of Kaufman and Gondry's achievement here is to transcend the mechanical and find the most human part of every act. So when the team begins working on Joel to erase those memories while he lies in his bed - and in a brilliant piece of prop selection, by the way, he sleeps in a foldout living-room hideabed - we see them raiding his fridge, dancing on his bed, drinking his booze, and revealing a great deal about themselves while they're doing it. As actors Gondry has gotten them to work without a net; they have never done such amazing work. Winslet particularly has let herself go as the irresistible, uncontrollable Clementine mismatched with the quiet, repressed Joel. And let me point out the brilliant work of cinematographer Ellen Kuras, whom you may know from the films "I Shot Andy Warhol," "Summer of Sam," and "Blow."
But here, once more, we find that Jim Carrey is the black hole at the center of the galaxy. I think as an actor, as opposed to a comedian, he is so focused on the mechanics of his roles that he cannot show us the human being inside. There's no there there. Here in "Eternal Sunshine" he so assiduously avoids giving us his well-known shtick that it's painful to watch him; there's no real, live human being left for him to show us, nothing for us to empathize with. I cannot help feeling that if only - if only - a better actor had been cast, this film would have been a triumph. But didn't someone say that our reach should exceed our grasp? "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is not a masterpiece, but it gives it a very good try.