Joel Barish (Jim Carrey, in full “servicing the script” mode) is a meek, quiet man who meets a firecracker of a young woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet, always perfect) on a New York train one blustery day. The two immediately hit it off and dive into a relationship, but things sour over time, leaving them at each other’s throats nonstop. When Joel learns that Clementine has opted for a medical procedure that erases any hint of Joel from her memory, the burned boyfriend fires back, and elects to have the procedure performed on him (the medical team is played by Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, and Mark Ruffalo) as well. As Joel experiences a kaleidoscopic version of his affair with Clementine through fractured memories and missed opportunities, he regrets his decision mid-procedure, and journeys through his own mind to try to save every last drop of Clementine while he still has the chance.
Here we are faced with another Charlie Kaufman screenplay, and I have one burning question: why do filmmakers feel the need to direct the stuffing out of each one of his scripts? “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (IMDb listing) joins “Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Confession of a Dangerous Mind,” and “Human Nature” as creations that are bursting with eccentricity and nuance - a Kaufman specialty. But in approaching this careful writing, director Michel Gondry (“Human Nature”) takes the assignment a little too seriously, and covers the essential behavior of the film under a blanket of style and edits.
“Eternal Sunshine” is not a film about love, but about the perception of love. Joel and Clementine’s romance isn’t necessarily meant to be, but they are caught up in the moment of attraction and attention, and take it to a place they’ve been taught physical interest must lead. Kaufman writes this relationship as a poisonous comfort zone that‘s hellish to live in, but even worse to lose. There is a passion for romantic optimism in the screenplay structure, which has Joel fussing about the positive details of the curdled romance through the relentless swarming of recollections in his head. “Eternal Sunshine” holds many moments of beauty when it gives space and time to the communication (or lack thereof) between Joel and Clementine, and breathes in that precious aroma of shattered relationships and heartbreak when that love starts to fail.
Gondry, a music video whiz and ace visual stylist, does allow some screen time for the audience to understand what is happening to Joel, but not necessarily to feel it alongside the character. “Eternal Sunshine” mostly takes place inside Joel’s brain, which is crammed full of voices, recollections, and nightmare side effects from the brain procedure, which presents an all-you-can-eat buffet of visual choices for Gondry to pick from. And like a fat man who skipped lunch, he takes them all.
It goes without saying that “Eternal Sunshine” is a gorgeous creation, so packed with gushing visual creativity and oddball performances that it’s almost impossible to detour attention to anywhere but the screen. Gondry delights in illustrating the gentle erasure of Joel’s brain through digital removal of background sets and characters in mid-scene, and blurring the faces and features of the main characters when Joel is lapsing too far into thought. There’s also a small segment where Joel regresses to his adolescent self; being bathed in a kitchen sink as an infant, and masturbating to R. Crumb comics as a KISS-loving teen. That’s the type of richly detailed material that I could watch all day, mainly due to Carrey’s ability to play youth as humanly real as an actor can get, and the train wreck nature of confronting growing pains. But Gondry’s breathless ability to sell Joel’s cerebral journey gets the best of him, and the film sporadically liquefies into a directing exercise that overindulges the script. It’s wonderful that Gondry can create such a unique portrait of memory loss, but it also costs “Eternal Sunshine” the more important battle: the human factor. In place of digging in deep with Joel and Clementine and discovering their pain and joy over being in love, we see technical bravado. And where I was dying to be invited into the couple’s emotional gladiatorial ring, I found myself remarking silently on the seamless edits and unusual set design. “Eternal Sunshine” clearly showcases a more confident director in Gondry, but this script is a case where less is more, since the camera tricks and flurry of technical juggling often pulled me right out of the movie.
There’s no doubt by now that Kaufman is one of the more unique voices in American cinema today, and “Eternal Sunshine” is his best script so far in exploring the painful certainties of human relationships. But it’s a half-realized creation, and much like his other screenplays, it didn’t need a volcano of visual dexterity to sell its universal themes and truths about the indescribable compulsions of love.
Filmfodder Grade: B-