Mark Reviews Movies

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Michel Gondry

Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo

MPAA Rating: R (for language, some drug content and sexual content)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 3/19/04


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Think of someone who broke your heart. Now imagine that it's possible to remove all traces of that person from your memory. Sounds pretty nice, doesn't it? That's the ingenious premise of wunderkind screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's script of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. With equally ingenious execution, director Michel Gondry creates the rocky terrain of human memory and tears it down in front of our eyes, using creative visual effects and good, old-fashioned lighting and camerawork. The film's setup takes us backwards through a relationship—from its heated end to its whimsical beginning—with scenes of tremendous honesty and realism against the backdrop of an ever-deteriorating landscape. The central couple faces such common relationship quandaries that we naturally identify with them, making the material all the more pertinent, but Kaufman doesn't leave it at that. He expands upon the initial idea, exploring themes and nuances of the concept that make us consider the psychological and social themes of such an extreme procedure, and he arrives at a conclusion of somewhat profound simplicity: the connection between two people goes beyond the inner workings of the brain. If you erase the memories, there's still something inexplicable left.

Joel (Jim Carrey) meets Clementine (Kate Winslet) on a train back Montauk Island, where he has just spent the day after ditching work for no apparent reason. He's not usually spontaneous, but for some reason, this day is different. The two hit it off after some awkward moments, mostly because she is usually spontaneous and speaks her mind. He's much more reserved. Cut to Joel, sobbing in his car. He returns to his apartment, where a neighbor wonders where Clementine is and what their plans for Valentine's Day are. He's quick to leave the conversation, goes to his apartment, takes a pill he received in the mail from a company called Lacuna, and passes out. He remembers certain things, especially about Clementine. She went to Lacuna as well, a fact that Joel wasn't supposed to know. She acted like she didn't even know him the last time he saw her, and that's because she didn't. She had her memories of him erased, and distraught, he decides to have his memories of her erased with the help of Dr. Howard Mierzwiak's (Tom Wilkinson) revolutionary procedure.

The film primarily takes place inside of Joel's mind as targeted memories of Clementine are systematically expunged from his brain by a pair of technicians (played by Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) working as Joel sleeps peacefully. What he's experiencing isn't quite as serene, and Gondry visualizes the world of Joel's memories as a nightmare. Cars fall out of the sky, people's faces go blank, and entire houses collapse. Kaufman has, perhaps, the most distinct and eccentric voice of any screenwriter working today, and his imagination is in full force here. Joel is alternately a witness of and a participant in his memories, watching hopelessly as his past literally crumbles before him. Gondry realizes this concept with initial subtlety (Clementine's name disappears from a letter) and growing complexity. Characters slowly go out of focus or pass through shadow, creating an immediacy to the proceedings. This is a nightmare for him, as he finds himself in an intimate moment with his beloved only to have her disappear. Joel eventually wants to hang on to these memories, which leads to his taking Clementine through other memories where he hopes no one will discover them.

These buried memories bring up an interesting dilemma. There are scenarios of painful secrets he chooses, including an event in his childhood where he took a hammer to a helpless bird under the pressure of his peers and a memory of how inattentive his mother was toward him. These experiences were vital to his development into the quiet, reclusive man that he is today, and under normal circumstances, his experience losing Clementine would point him in another direction of personal growth. The process of deleting memories so early in the course of grieving and adapting would suggest that he would not learn from these experiences. In a society that demands instant gratification, Lacuna seems the perfect match. Here's an easy way to avoid pain and suffering, but at what cost? Kaufman is smart, realizes this, and gives us the character of the office secretary Mary (Kirsten Dunst), who has an unprofessional crush on Dr. Howard. There's a secret between the two of them that opens up a philosophical can of worms concerning the nature of love in regards to the film's setup. The consequences of the relationship lead to the film's most striking query: If you knew the eventual problems of a relationship, would you still go through with it? And if you did, would that change the course of said relationship?

The questions hold even more bearing when we put them on Joel and Clementine. Their pairing seems a mismatch made in heaven. He has a personality that could bring her more down to earth; she has an impulsiveness that could liven up his life. The way this couple fights and loves is sincere. She goes out and parties late into the night; he stays up waiting for her. He accuses her of cheating on him. He's insecure but doesn't know any other way to express it. She's equally insecure, as she reveals by relating how she saw herself as an ugly child and begs Joel not to leave her (the irony of the statement is tragic). This is a couple driven and torn apart by their own neuroses, and we feel for them.  Jim Carrey continues to thrive in dramatic roles. Carrey infuses Joel with a sympathetic angst—a loner who could easily make someone happy if only he were happy himself. Kate Winslet, with primary-color dyed hair, pinpoints his opposite, giving Clementine a seemingly unflappable carefree spirit that makes her moments of vulnerability all the more affecting.

Without a connection to the central relationship, all of Kaufman's musings and Gondry's visual frills would be for naught, but because there's something identifiable in their affair, it all fits into place. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about maturing the concept of a loving relationship. Some people want their love to be clear skies and sunsets, running at the nearest sign of trouble, and for them, Lacuna is the answer. For the rest of us, we know that love isn't just happy feelings; it's something you have to work at for it to flourish.

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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