Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

© 2004 Ray Wong

If you are familiar with Charlie Kaufman’s work, you would not be surprised by the quirks and strangeness of ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF A SPOTLESS MIND. It is also a bittersweet and poignant love story. By far the most impressive aspect of the film is the writing. Kaufman (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION) has whipped up a brilliant (if somewhat A.D.D.), original and bizarre concoction of love, relationships and regrets.

The film opens with an extended prologue. Joel (Carrey, BRUCE ALMIGHTY) is a lonely, withdrawn man who wakes up on Valentine’s Day feeling lost and confused. Acting on impulse (something he never did before), he escapes his dull world to a Long Island beach, where he meets the free-spirited Clementine (Winslet, IRIS). Joel and Clem cannot be more different: he is quiet and cautious while she is spontaneous and wild with a penchant for unusual hair colors and potato art; but for some reason they are drawn to each other. Then, in flashback, we see that Joel and Clem are once lovers. As their relationship falls apart, Clem impetuously goes to Dr. Mierzwiak to have her memory of Joel erased. When Joel finds out, he, too, wants to have his memory of Clem erased. During the procedure, operated by hapless technicians Stan (Ruffalo, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME) and Patrick (Wood, THE LORD OF THE RINGS), Joel changes his mind and desperately tries to hide Clem from the inevitable. One “zap!” and she would be gone.

Those who expect to see Jim Carrey in an outrageous role in a laugh-out-loud comedy would likely be disappointed. Here, he has given us one of his most subdued, downbeat performances, a vast departure from his last effort in BRUCE ALMIGHTY. While he is exceptionally grim and heartbreaking as Joel, I can’t help but wish for a little “eternal sunshine” from the master jester. Winslet has less to do but she plays Clementine with the right touch of idiosyncrasy and feistiness, complete with an impeccable American accent. Wilkinson is perfect as the droll doctor and Dunst is fine as the perky and naïve Mary, the receptionist who has a secret crush on the good old Doc. Ruffalo is hilarious as the nerdy but responsible Stan and Wood is uncharacteristically slimy as the guy who steals Joel’s identity as Clem’s boyfriend.

The film is unexpectedly intense and sad, though not completely devoid of humor and comic relief -- some of the most hilarious moments happen in Joel’s brain, including a few fantastically wacky scenes, playing havoc with Joel’s childhood memories. The cinematography is moody and nostalgic, saturated with blue and gray hues. Some scenes (e.g. on the beach) are breathtaking. At times the characters go in and out of focus, achieving a rather neat effect (as people go in and out of Joel’s memory). However, I find the extensive use of handheld cameras and the oft abrupt camera movements objectionable. Truly headache inducing. The non-linear storytelling and jerky editing make it hard to follow sometimes. The “visual noises” distract from the riveting story. Also, despite the obvious attraction and sexual chemistry between Joel and Clem, you really don’t have a strong feeling why they should stay together, or whether they would have a future with each other. You get a sense that Joel and Clem really love each other, but you don’t quite understand why. Perhaps Kaufman understands that as well, for the ending is bittersweet yet non-committal, almost too perfect for a cautionary tale about our perpetual struggle with the people we love the most.

Stars: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson
Director: Michael Gondry
Writers: Charlie Kaufman, Michael Gondry, Piere Mismuth
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for language, drugs and sexual content


Script – 9
Performance – 7
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 4
Production – 7

Total – 6.4 out of 10

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