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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet
Director: Michel Gondry
Rated: R
RunTime: 108 Minutes
Release Date: March 2004
Genres: Comedy, Romance


*Also starring: Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, David Cross, Lauren Adler, Josh Flitter, Dylan Gallagher, Ellen Pompeo



Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

The title of Michael Gondry's movie, utilizing Charlie Kaufman's signature surrealist style, comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, "Eloisa to Abelard," as stated by one of the characters. "How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!/ The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!" But here's a more relevant aphorism: 'Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all. Tennyson apparently believed that, or so he says in his poem "In Memoriam," but should we? Surely any red-blooded human being who has lived to the age of thirty with a flurry of relationships, some maturing into love, knows that breaking up is hard to do. Aside from the hurt to our ego, a failed relationship is not like a piece of old baggage thrown away without a thought but remains in our memories throughout our lives: Our dreams remind us what we have lost, affording us flights of fancy often so intense that reality is a dull facsimile in comparison, and who's better than Charlie Kaufman to pen a zany script on the painful subject of lost loves?

Kaufman, whose "Adaptation" gave life to a pair of twin brothers, one a carefree soul, that other a neurotic who is tortured while trying to write a story; and whose "Being John Malkovich" gave us an iconoclastic puppeteer who discovers a portal into the mind of an actor; has created a new story, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," just as dizzying, farfetched, surreal, perplexing, and evoking no small number of brilliant moments.

Instead of dealing with the creative process, as he did with "Being John Malkovich," or with an analysis of twin brothers who look exactly alike but appear from different planets, he's penned a screenplay that is thoroughly humane albeit without sticky sentimentality, one that veers too far off the deep end at times but as a whole is original, superbly acted, and featuring a subplot that mirrors the main story in much the style of Shakespearean comedy.

Music video director Michel Gondry worked with Charlie Kaufman before, his "Human Nature" undertaking the story of a research scientist who hooks up with a woman just back from the wild attempting to civilize a man-beast, a narrative that did not generally cohere but which in the service of the madcap adventure "Eternal Sunshine" becomes a strength. The story begins with an invention of comic silliness when a shy fellow, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), who appears to entertain vague thoughts of a depressing incident, meets the impulsive Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) on a train heading from Montauk, New York, to Rockville Center. Her spontaneity and desire to be listened to matches with Joel's need to be led. A doomed romance begins, Joel and Kate somehow thinking that they'd met once before, not realizing that both have had their memories of each other from their previous affair erased by neurologist Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson).

The most Kaufmanesque segments of the film, which take up perhaps one-third of the action, revolve around the vivid fantasies experienced by Joel when he, smarting in pain from the loss of his impetuous girlfriend, submits to a medical procedure by which the doctor and his technician, Stan (Mark Ruffalo), put the patient into a deep sleep and begin deleting those parts of the brain that relate to the specific, romantic memories. Through visual effects that for decades have been de rigeuer in the movie industry, we in the audience become voyeurs of Joel's dreams which, through a speedy succession of scenes that are shown to the audience without the usual gossamer filtration that separate dreams from the real world come across as a flurry of activities engaged in by the couple during better days, some surreal, others naturalistic.

While Jim Carrey is toned down as never before thereby giving us a performance of greater depth than he has hitherto shown, much of the comedy revolves around the fantasies we've all had, the real world taking on new meaning through symbolic activities. Alice-in-Wonderland theatrics show Joel as a small boy walking with a girl of about his age, morphing suddenly into the mature adult who is, logically enough, just four feet high and able to fit conveniently under a table.

Performances by Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst, which embrace the mirror subplot, reach such comic proportions that these secondary actors actually trump the principals. Ruffalo as technician Stan is working with a computer on a sleeping Joel at night in the patient's own home when Stan's girlfriend, Mary (Kirsten Dunst) arrives. Stan puts the machine on auto-pilot, Mary gets stoned, and both dance happily on the bed, peeling off their clothes until the doctor, phoned up by Stan when a glitch develops in the process, arrives to troubleshoot the situation. During that time, new information becomes available to Mary that changes the course of the story.

The varied surreal images zip us without chronological concerns as the machine zaps one image after another from the subject's brain. Now Joel and Clementine are lying on the ice, Joel stating that he has never been happier, then Clementine disappears completely from the frozen lake. Now the two are talking, then the house itself begins to fall apart as Clementine again disappears. Ultimately all memories are fried from Joel's brain. Or are they?

"Eternal Sunshine" gets us back to Tennyson's statement, ""Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all." We ask ourselves at the close, given the choice, would we want to have part of our personality lobotomized to rid us of the pain of a failed relationship, or are we better, even ultimately happier people when all past experiences of love remain imbedded in our subconscious? As Joel and Clementine may drift toward a new connection, are they not more likely to recover their joys, live with their woes, and be better human beings for having experienced and recalled their past love? Few films have better dealt with this central issue in as engaging, if sometimes jumbled, a manner as this.

Copyright 2004 Harvey Karten

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