Common sense dictates that, if your goal is to create a deeply affecting film portrait of latter-day romance, you don’t cast Lloyd Christmas as the male lead. And you sure as bloody hell don’t tap Charlie Kaufman, the Screenwriter’s Guild’s mod-classic clown, to collaborate on the script. Don’t get me wrong, quixotic genius abounds in Kaufman’s tomfoolery. But if his previous scripts (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, etc.) had a fault, it was that they spent so much time winking and flaunting their own damnable cleverness that the characters no longer existed to show us our faltering humanity but simply to provide an outlet for Kaufman’s incessant cheek-tonguing. So you can imagine my utter stupefaction when, approximately halfway through his newest project, I detect an honest-to-god lump swelling uncomfortably. Like a malignant tumor. At the base of my throat.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a beguiling hybrid romantic comedy and sci-fi gambol about a pair of estranged lovers hoping to alleviate their post-breakup blues by visiting a medical facility specializing in memory erasure, joins a longstanding tradition of films toying with the notion of science/technology as sprung genie—granting wishes easily enough but ultimately refusing to guarantee customer satisfaction. (Time-travel films, a la Back to the Future, have been wringing dry this conceptual sponge for years). But where Eternal Sunshine distinguishes itself most isn’t in concept or approach or even plot, but in the disheveled poetry Kaufman plants in the mouths of his characters. Even the film’s title, plucked from Alexander Pope’s 18th-century poem “Eloisa to Abelard,” shows up toward the film’s emotional climax in a particularly arresting voice-over: “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.”
Jim Carrey, graduating summa cum laude from the Bill Murray School for Erstwhile Sketch Comics Who Long to Make The Whole World Cry, turns in the most brilliantly understated (read: non-spastic) performance of his career as Joel Barish, a journal-doodling hobbyist and romantically gun-shy loner who’s eager to fall in love but near-paralyzed by his fear of women. This is Kaufman’s archetypal male: the self-deprecating, socially impotent loser artist who awkwardly struggles to establish any sort of connection with the opposite sex (remember John Cusack’s mopey character in Being John Malkovich?). In the tradition of Raphael and numerous other Renaissance artists, Kaufman has a penchant for painting himself into his canvases, a lark which Adaptation revels in unapologetically. Regardless, Carrey nails the part, winning audience sympathy from the opening moments of the film as he bumbles his way through what appears to be his initial introduction to Clementine Kruczynski—a terminally chatty, spontaneous and borderline-neurotic woman (whimsically portrayed by Kate Winslet)—aboard a train to scenic Montauk, after surprising himself one weekday morning with the uncharacteristically impulsive idea of skipping work and taking a spontaneous detour.
Borrowing sequencing techniques from Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Eternal Sunshine delights and befuddles in much the same fashion, forcing viewers to experience the characters’ lingering sense of dislocation from the very circumstances of their own lives. Amid the unsettling confusion, however, lies the exhilaration of gradually piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of Joel and Clementine’s relationship, a romance so fitful, paranoid and off-kilter that it seems frighteningly documentary. These characters feel so emotionally credible, in fact, that when Kaufman predictably sends the film barreling pell-mell through his trademark Carrollian looking glass, you barely flinch. In this case, that looking glass comes in the form of Lacuna, Inc., a company that developed a “cutting-edge, non-surgical procedure for the focused erasure of troubling memories.”
After Joel stumbles upon evidence that Clementine has employed Lacuna to wipe him from her memory, he too visits their downtown offices, seeking to undergo a similar procedure to rid himself of the painful, hounding memories of his tangerine-haired beloved. Later that night, after his initial consultation and appointment, knocked out and semi-comatose due to a powerful dose of anesthesia administered by the Lacuna staff, Joel awakens within his own slumbering subconscious—Kaufman’s trusty alibi for indulging in a lengthy cinematic acid trip—and quickly realizes that forever losing the memory of Clementine would prove an infinitely greater tragedy than merely surviving the ache of losing her outwardly. As the Lacuna technician begins tinkering with Joel’s computer-rendered “brain map” in an attempt to delete any memories linked to Clem, Joel’s psyche turns psycho—names on street signs and books disappear at random, real memories of Clem are distorted and/or blended with unrelated ones, rain pours down inside Joel’s living room, along with every other visual non sequitur you can imagine. At this point, a subconscious Joel takes his subconscious Clem by the subconscious hand and the two begin a frantic attempt to save not only the memory of their relationship, but the relationship itself.
Don’t be fooled by the glib, offhand nature of the film’s surface demeanor. Kaufman’s endearingly off-the-wall antics are pronounced as ever, but he’s finally learning how to temper his humorous sport with something called humanistic spirit. This anti-romantic comedy has a beating heart at its center. And while it insists on offering a vision of romantic love through a carnival funhouse mirror dimly, the view is bright enough to leave a camera-flash-to-retina-style impression. One you will not soon forget.