DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (director/writer: Michel Gondry; screenwriters: Charlie Kaufman/based on a story by Mr. Kaufman/Pierre Bismuth; cinematographer: Ellen Kuras; editor: Valdis Oskarsdottir; music: Jon Brion; cast: Jim Carrey (Joel Barish), Kate Winslet (Clementine Kruczynski), Kirsten Dunst (Mary), Mark Ruffalo (Stan), Elijah Wood (Patrick), Tom Wilkinson (Dr. Howard Mierzwiak), Jane Adams (Carrie); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Steve Golin/Anthony Bregman; Focus Features; 2004)

 
"Perhaps the ultimate head trip flick."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Frenchman Michel Gondry ("Human Nature"), previously known for his music-videos, teams with writer Charlie Kaufman again and this time in his second feature fully gets what Kaufman is after and comes up with a much better film than his disappointing debut. The idea for the story was originally suggested by Michel Gondry and his fellow Frenchman Pierre Bismuth (a conceptual artist, who came up with the idea of mailing to friends a note saying their memory had been erased), and the idea was embellished when Mr. Kaufman came aboard the project. The flashy photography of Ellen Kuras and the thumping musical arrangement by Jon Brion do wonders. It all comes magically together as a brilliantly witty screwball sci-fi romantic/comedy that digs further than ever before into Kaufman's continuing off-the-wall study of neurotics, as he literally gets into his subject's head to make perhaps the ultimate head trip flick. His innovative screenplays of domestic woes, surrealist imaginings, downbeat atmospheres, unfulfilled desires and bizarre dysfunctional characters are now becoming easy for filmgoers to recognize. That is a compliment usually reserved only for auteurs (those who direct and write their own films). This comes after Kaufman's similar themed and worthy but more flawed screenplays of "Being John Malkovich," "Human Nature," and "Adaptation." 

Jim Carrey stars as dull and painfully taciturn suburbanite Joel Barish, a depressive who is stunned to discover that his ditsy loquacious girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet), who depending on her mood dyes her hair either cobalt-blue or bright orange or whatever and who clerks in NYC's Barnes & Noble, has had her memories of their relationship erased from her brain through an experimental procedure offered by a ratty outfit called Lacuna and performed by the paternal owner of that small company Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). The procedure sounds a lot like the much maligned shock therapy. Nevertheless the not to be outdone in the forgetful department Joel brings to the office a carton filled with Clem memories and decides to also get brainwashed with the same procedure, only concerned enough to ask the doctor "Does it cause brain damage?" To which the doctor replies in a reassuring tone "Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage." 

Mierzwiak's bumbling team of assistants -- the unprofessional head technician Stan Fink (Mark Ruffalo) and his unethical partner Patrick (Elijah Wood) -- complete the procedure on Joel over the course of an evening, in his apartment. Joining them is the bimbo office receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Stan's girlfriend, who gets stoned with Stan and they dance together in their undies over Joel's sleeping body. Stan also trashes Joel's pad. As Joel is left on auto-pilot weaving in and out of his internal space while he relives his relationship with Clem in reverse—with the most recent experiences erased first. Patrick leaves when he receives a call from his new girlfriend, none other than Clementine, whom he stole her panties and Joel's identity during her erasure procedure and has used this info to move in on her. In the meantime Joel has had a change of mind about the procedure and struggles in his own mind to save at least one good memory of Clementine from being deleted, as he realizes he does love her despite what he said before.

The title comes from a poem by Alexander Pope — or as the stoned Mary calls him, "Pope Alexander." She's trying to impress the married Dr. Mierzwiak, someone she wants to sleep with, that she's not a dummy and understands the work he's doing and offers in proof the following quote:

              How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
              The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
              Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
              Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd;
              Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;
              "Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep;"
              Desires compos'd, affections ever ev'n,
              Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav'n.
              -- Alexander Pope, "Eloisa to Abelard"

The film is not all that clear-cut as it develops, as it doesn't move in linear order and is filled with flashbacks and purposely distorts its chronological order. The aim as it turns out is to see everything as Joel does at the moment. It opens when the hopelessly bashful bachelor Joel instead of going to work in the city impulsively boards a LIRR commuter train out to a wintry deserted Montauk, where he encounters on the train the impetuous and freaky Clementine aggressively coming onto him. What we wouldn't have known at that point, is that they both had the brainwash procedures and it seems as if they are meeting for the first time rather than already having gone through a disastrous relationship (having met originally at a Montauk winter beach picnic). Somehow, now that they are together again we are left wondering if it's possible for them to start over with fresh results. Things sort of come to a possible hopeful ending (a truer and more meaningful ending than in any of Kaufman's other scripts). It is not that much unlike a typical Hollywood romantic/comedy ending, except these are real characters (or at least believable characters) getting hurt as opposed to the usual cartoonish movie characters. There's also the sting of mental illness opened up; it is something lingering that we are left on our own time to sift through. "Eternal Sunrise" is not an easy walk in the park, as it leaves the viewer with a lot to think about relationships and how difficult they are to keep for both parties.

The comically inclined ensemble cast was delightful. An understated Carrey does wonders with the role, going beyond his usual showboating shtick by allowing his outer shell to be penetrated to show his vulnerability. Winslet had her manic moves down pat and gave an uplifting exaggerated performance as one of those energetic fun loving Noo Yawk kooks, which are not often portrayed as well as it was here. Veteran British character actor Tom Wilkinson can always be relied on for a top performance, and shows his mordant humor with an enjoyable stint. The same goes for the performances of Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo and the former hobbit Elijah Wood. "Eternal Sunrise" is much more grim and complex than its bizarre playful denouement allows you to at first believe, but it's one of the better screwball romantic/comedies ever made fully capturing the initial pain of a breakup.

REVIEWED ON 3/25/2004        GRADE: A

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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