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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind   A-

Focus Features

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michel Gondry
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, David Cross, Ellen Pompeo, Tom Wilkinson.

Review by Rob Vaux
"We can't have the happiness of yesterday without the pain of today. That's the deal."
--Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), Shadowlands

Hollywood's perfect on-screen romances get a hefty dose of reality in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind... which is odd, since it stems from the surreal musings of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. It celebrates love through the bitter end, treating the arguments, the ennui, and the terrible breakups with the same care as the first kiss. And it finds a wicked dilemma upon which to skewer its happy couple, who like so many of us have bought into the lie of bliss without consequence. Kaufman and director Michel Gondry understand how much that belief dominates our society: the efforts to which we go to remove pain and sadness from our lives. Eternal Sunshine hinges on the notion that true romance is rife with unpleasantness... and that ridding ourselves of it costs us the very joy we sought in the first place.

As always, Kaufman finds an original means of developing his thesis, which Gondry renders in a quasi-documentary style. The washed-out screen, colored in the dull grays of winter, is all the more striking since the film's central gimmick is essentially a form of science fiction. A service, engineered by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), can erase painful memories from the mind. One quiet night in his patented high-tech hair dryer (along with a no-doubt scintillating credit card payment), and all thoughts of a particular trauma -- lost pets, humiliating jobs, love affairs gone wrong -- are sucked clean. Mierzwiak's practice comes to the abrupt attention of Joel Barrish (Jim Carrey), whose friends receive a card informing them that his newly minted ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has undergone the process, and now doesn't have the faintest idea who he is. In a fit of pique, he resolves to return the favor, and makes an appointment with the good doctor to de-Clem his brain.

The attraction of such a service is undeniable. A newspaper columnist once called it "Disnification": filing off all life's harsh edges to prevent our emotional pain. The trouble is, without the sorrows, the joys that contrast them lose their potency and we're left with a homogenized middle: fluffy, carefree, and utterly devoid of humanity. Gondry takes great pleasure in satirizing those desires, with Joel serving as reluctant audience surrogate. Eternal Sunshine organizes the process as a circular reversal. We first see Joel and Clem meeting -- in the past or the future, we're not quite sure -- followed by his miserable visit to the doctor. He experiences the erasure as a sort of extended dream, starting with the painful experience of the breakup and slowly retreating to earlier (and much happier) times before it.

Therein lies the rub, which Joel finally recognizes midway through the procedure. The baby is being thrown out with the bathwater, and as memory after memory is pulled away, he realizes that he's still in love with the woman attached to them. He tries to terminate the session, but lying unconscious on the bed with Dr. Mierzwiak's dipshit underlings (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) pawing through his memories leaves him few means of putting on the breaks. So he confounds them by retreating into his subconscious, hiding his thoughts of Clem amid adolescent guilt, childhood trauma, and other seamy parts of the mind's landscape. Here, Gondry's direction blends wondrously with Kaufman's bizarre humor, as Mierzwiak's flunkies give electronic chase to their fleeing client. Eternal Sunshine retains its grainy verité look throughout these sequences while revealing strange, sometimes disturbing corners of Joel's psyche. But always, they're linked to Clem and to the heartfelt feelings he continues to carry for her. His fight confirms the depths of his emotions; its seeming futility is all the more poignant since his pursuers are merely doing what he asked.

Nor does Gondry limit his bite to Joel. Mierzwiak and his assistants discover a price for playing God in the film's most stunning turn, which Kaufman slides artfully into a bittersweet climax. The focus, however, remains largely on the leads, who are always great to watch. Carrey feels quite comfortable without his usual spastic buffoonery (a state to which he often aspires but infrequently achieves), and Winslet brings delightful energy to the impulsive Clementine. They bloom amid the bizarre condition in which the film finds them, affirming its central message and keeping us from getting too lost in the weirdness. Gondry deserves credit for staying true to the course, as does Kaufman for not letting his quirkiness get the better of him (which he did in the overrated Adaptation). The results are revelatory. For all its oddities, Eternal Sunshine feels more truthful than any dozen blow-dried Julia Roberts vehicles. It cheerfully dives down the rabbit hole while other films are searching for the exit, reminding us that happiness -- true happiness -- has no easy answers. That's a message that we could all stand to hear a little more often; by delivering it so well, Eternal Sunshine comes close to greatness.

Review published 03.18.2004.

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