Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()
Too often, love is as painful as it is pleasurable. It’s all too easy to forget the universally touted axiom: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” because the pain of a failed romance is so intense it seems never to be overcome. But what if it could? What if, in our ever-advancing endeavors in technology actually yielded a way to obliterate the anguish of heartbreak? Were it possible to elect to “never have loved at all,” would you? This is the question, and the bizarre premise that faces the characters of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the latest postmodern enterprise from acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.
Kaufman has already established his own cult status through his exceptional writing in Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, both of which are surreal fantasies concerning the misadventures of unfulfilled losers and oddballs, all of whose stories are told in scrambled narratives—be it from differing viewpoints or chronologies. Kaufman’s creative powers lie in his ability to juggle these varying angles without losing the unity of the story. He effortlessly teeters between fantasy and reality, maudlin and silly, or the innocent and jaded in his writing. Eternal Sunshine is no exception.
This time around the oddball is Joel Barish (Jim Carrey in a surprisingly subdued performance), a decidedly average, brooding man whose life is lacking in both meaning and enthusiasm. One day, he spontaneously skips work and catches a different train, desperately trying to inject a bit of color into his pallid life. Amazingly, he finds it (both literally and figuratively) in Clementine, a zesty and outgoing lass who befriends Joel at his destination - actually they’ve already met. It’s apparent that opposites attract, for the two characters’ awkward interactions blossom into romance.
But … here comes that “love hurts” crap again. Some time “later,” Joel and Clementine’s differing personalities have finally caused their tumultuous relationship to end. When Joel attempts reconciliation and is obliviously shunned by Clementine, he discovers that she has had every memory of him and their relationship wiped from her memory through a process done by the Lacuna Corporation. Forlorn, Joel seeks to have the same process done to him, and it’s here that things go astray. After preliminary procedures, the doctor’s weird young technicians come to Joel’s apartment while he sleeps and hook him up to a thingamabob that eradicates his memories of Clementine. But Joel achieves some lucid cognition while in his sleep state and, gallivanting around his memories of Clementine, starts to rediscover his love of her and then desperately tries to evade the erasure.
Films have attempted to evoke such ephemeral experiences as dreams or hallucinations before, but never has it been done so effectively as this. Sharp and colorful cinematography beautifully depicts Joel’s amorphous “Brainscape,” not only effectively capturing the makeup of memories, but also how they’re formed and sustained. Joel clambers from beaches to dark nightscapes trying to save Clementine from mental annihilation, all the while learning that the overwhelming memories of his lover vastly outweigh their superficial exterior inconsistencies. Will he save her? Or will his life be totally cleansed, for better and for worse, of her influence?
As outstanding an achievement Eternal Sunshine is, it isn’t one for Kaufman alone. Michel Gondry provides superb direction that remains much steadier than Kaufman’s previous collaborator, Spike Jonze, and adds legitimacy to the picture. The story concentrates not only on the two protagonists, but also on the subplots involving Lacuna creator Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), and the antics of his technicians; Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Elijah Wood), and Mary (Kirsten Dunst), all of whom deliver fine performances. The strength of the ensemble cast, the stunning visuals, and the overriding concentration on love and memory are all brought together by Gondry without letting one element override another, but rather gel into an artistic, cohesive masterpiece.