April 2024

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind GIFs | POPSUGAR Entertainment

DIRECTOR: Michel Gondry

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


Taking its quirky title from a poem by Alexander Pope, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a product of offbeat French music video and movie director Michel Gondry and the twisted mind of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, is stimulating and refreshing proof that a movie’s existence within the “romantic comedy” genre—sort of—does not inherently doom it to cookie-cutter formula. There’s nothing conventional or formulaic about this charmingly eccentric, visually inventive movie, which uses a quirky and original premise to explore themes of love, loss, memory, and the ideas that “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”, and that we need all of our memories, both happy and painful, to make us who we are.

Joel Barrish (Jim Carrey) is a meek, unassuming man who found that opposites attract when he met the uninhibited Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). Alas, after a passionate but turbulent love affair, the very differences that intrigued them about each other were eventually their undoing (Clementine got bored with Joel and Joel wearied of her erratic and needy behavior) and they’ve already gone their separate ways when the movie opens. Nonetheless, the collapse of their relationship has left Joel in a heartbroken funk, and it only rubs salt into an open wound when he learns that Clementine has decided to wipe their relationship from her life with the help of Dr. Howard Mierzqwiak (Tom Wilkinson), a specialist in memory erasure. For a fee, Howard and his staff—Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Mary (Kirsten Dunst), and Patrick (Elijah Wood)—can neatly wipe a painful memory of another person or a failed relationship with surgical precision. Resentful of Clementine’s decision, and wanting to be rid of his pain, Joel decides to undergo the same procedure, but a twist happens. Mid-procedure and watching his memories with Clementine flashing through his mind as they’re being erased, Joel has an epiphany: he doesn’t want to lose them. Thus commences a very unusual sort of cat-and-mouse game within Joel’s subconsciousness, as Joel “steals” Clementine to save her from the memory erasers, fleeing with her into parts of his memory where she doesn’t belong—his childhood, for example—in a desperate attempt to hold onto to what he’s realized he doesn’t want to lose. And meanwhile, secrets come out among the good doctor and his bumbling staff, and Patrick uses his knowledge of Clementine and Joel’s relationship to try to insert himself into her life in Joel’s place.

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Despite featuring a sci-fi-ish premise, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is not a sci-fi movie in any but the loosest sense. The memory erasing technology is not gone into in any great detail—Joel’s head is encased in what looks like an aluminum football helmet attached to a laptop—but any laborious exposition about it would be superfluous. The movie is not about the workings of the technology; you accept it for the plot device that it is and just go with it. The narrative is told in a non-linear chronology that some may find confusing, but this is justified and even necessitated by the fact that the bulk of it takes place inside Joel’s head, as he tries to hide Clementine from the memory erasers by taking her into memories she doesn’t belong in. This is where the movie’s inventive visual style and set design really shines, including in scenes like Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet crawling around on the floor and acting like toddlers, accentuated by oversized furniture around them. There’s another striking moment where the mind erasers catch up to them in a memory in a train station, and Joel and Clementine flee the station while random objects start disappearing one by one around them, leaving an increasingly barren void (there’s other surreal imagery, like Joel and Clementine waking up in a bed on the beach, or taking a bath inside a giant sink). The movie understands and effectively conveys the fragmented nature of memories, as Joel and Clementine—or at least his subconscious projection of her—wander through fragments of memory without rhyme or reason from before, during, and after the erasure. Kaufman has a recurring pattern of writing movies that take place inside characters’ noggins (recall Being John Malkovich) and delights in the blurred lines between fantasy, memory, and reality and exploring the ways in which memories are malleable and sometimes rose-tinted, and the importance of even painful memories in living a full life. In an odd way, one is reminded of William Shatner’s speech in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: “They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away. I need my pain!“.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind | Netflix

With the sad-sack Joel, Jim Carrey has proven he can play a role straight, or at least much straighter than the manic zany comedian is best-known for. The movie is a comedy-drama with various touches of absurdity and a quirky sense of humor, but Carrey is subdued (ironically, it’s Carrey who’s the meek, unassuming romantic partner opposite the wilder, more flamboyant Clementine, a switch from what one might expect). Carrey has dialed down his own over-the-top persona to the extent that we’re able to see him as Joel Barrish instead of just “Jim Carrey”. He is offset by Kate Winslet, who is often cast in period roles but proves just as convincing as the very modern uninhibited free spirit Clementine, who changes her hair color as often as her wardrobe. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet might sound like an odd couple, but, perhaps partly because they’re both playing against type, they make it work. There’s a tangible connection between Joel and Clementine despite their incompatibility that makes us root for them to somehow rediscover each other, even if their prospects of staying together are dubious. In the supporting cast we have Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst as Stan and Mary, who demonstrate their less-than-professional work ethic by eating chips and strip-dancing over Joel’s unconscious body, Tom Wilkinson as Dr. Mierzqwiak, who has enough gravitas to sell the ridiculous premise in his opening bit and later shows the ways in which even a man with good intentions can fall short in his personal behavior, and Elijah Wood (following up The Lord of the Rings with a low-key indie project) as the less-than-noble Patrick, who uses his knowledge of Clementine’s past relationship with Joel to insinuate himself into her life. The script has a sneaky way of eventually making revelations even in secondary subplots that make characters like Howard and Mary more complicated than they might seem at first glance.

In the sea of cookie cutter formulaic sameness that far too many lazy romantic comedies and romantic dramas fall into, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has carved out a unique identity for itself (and puts the lazy uninspired entries we usually see in this genre to even more shame by comparison) by doing something completely different and original that’s visually inventive and intellectually stimulating while not neglecting the fundamental basics of the genre: a couple with chemistry that’s engaging enough to get us to root for them to somehow make it work out. It flouts conventions and formulas without discarding the reason people watch romances, and explores meaningful themes with an absurdist semi-comedic flair. It’s unabashedly oddball in a way that’s charmingly eccentric instead of off-putting, and shows both a brain and a heart, and those qualities are enough to make it well worthwhile.

* * * 1/2