Well, here it is mid-March, and the first really brilliant film of 2004 has finally arrived to break the monotony of movie mediocrity that invariably accompanies the new year.
There are those people who think screenwriter Charlie Kaufman can do no wrong; for the rest of us — I didn’t like his Adaptation at all, and found a second viewing of Being John Malkovich both a little tedious and smart-assed — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a bit of a surprise. The only of Kaufman’s screenplays that has, until now, fully worked for me was Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
This raises two possible points: Either my problem isn’t with Kaufman, but with director Spike Jonez, or else I find Kaufman more palatable when he’s working from existing material (the Chuck Barris “autobiography” in Confessions) or in tandem with other writers (in Eternal Sunshine‘s case, director Michel Gondry and co-scenarist Pierre Bismuth). Granted, Adaptation is ostensibly based on Susan Orleans’ book; but in reality, it’s a fantasy about trying to adapt that book to a screenplay. My guess is that Kaufman and Jonez together are just a little too pleased with themselves for my taste — something I didn’t get from the Kaufman-George Clooney pairing in Confessions, and something I got nary a hint of with Eternal Sunshine. (Not having seen the previous Gondry-Kaufman collaboration Human Nature, I can’t comment on it.)
Whatever the case, Eternal Sunshine is little short of amazing — and one of the most intense movies I’ve ever seen about the sheer nature of being human. The title is taken from Alexander Pope’s poem “Eloisa to Abelard”: “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.” Actually, however, the literary connection extends far beyond the source of the title.
It’s not much a stretch to view the rather crude technicians who are erasing the memory of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) as psychological variations on the hooligans employed by the historical Eloisa’s uncle to break in and castrate Abelard (and I suspect the filmmakers intend it to be taken that way). Because by removing his memory, they are, in effect, emotionally castrating him. More simply, you could say that the “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” is about on par with Woody Allen’s response to Diane Keaton’s ruminations that the village idiot in Love and Death seems happy enough (“It’s pretty easy to be happy when your major concern in life is how much saliva to dribble.”) Or, if you prefer to stay a little more poetic, you might go with Paul Simon’s advice: “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”
When all is said and done, Eternal Sunshine is a film about memory, and how that facet of us makes us distinctly human. The film’s intricate structure may at first seem daunting — even off-putting — since the movie almost completely jettisons any concerns with linear storytelling, requiring the viewer to sift through the events on the screen and pick up the story line on the fly. That might have come across as nothing more than a clever conceit in nearly any other film, but in a movie about memories, it’s perfect — memories themselves are not linear.
Eternal Sunshine understands this and presents its story in a shrewdly jumbled — yet indefinably “right” — manner that is less concerned with narrative in a traditional sense, and more concerned with conveying the impression of the cumulative impact of memory. In fact, like memory, the story is almost impossible to synopsize — and I think it would be a disservice to try to do so, as it would rob Eternal Sunshine of that very cumulative impact that is central to its point.
However, the film’s basic premise is itself not complicated: When Joel inadvertently learns that his former girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), has had all memory of him erased by the advanced scientific methods of Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), he opts to have the same procedure done to him. “Is there any risk of brain damage?” he reasonably asks, only to be told that, strictly speaking, the operation is a form of brain damage.
Yet even with this uncomfortable information, Joel barges ahead. He takes the medication that will ready him for the distinctly sci-fi-based procedure, and is soon set upon by the doctor’s two uncouth “technicians,” Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood). More concerned with their own problems and desires — not to mention that they blithely trash and criticize his apartment, and drink his liquor — the pair are about the last people on earth you’d care to trust with your mind! Their antics are at once repellent and disturbing, yet somehow understandable — as is the potential power that the intimate knowledge of their subjects affords them.
The kicker, however, is that part way through the procedure — as his memories of Clementine are eroded from his brain — Joel realizes he doesn’t want to lose his thoughts of her. However, he’s by then unconscious, and his only recourse is to try to hide at least one memory of Clementine from the technicians. It’s as impossible a chore as can be imagined — or is it?
This high-concept film works because it’s ultimately so completely human; it’s an on-target depiction of the very real process of trying to hold onto our treasured memories while time and life eat away at them in the natural course of events. Except that in Eternal Sunshine, the process is speeded up. And as Joel’s memories diminish over the course of the treatment, the result is little short of devastating.
That’s both the crux of the movie and an oversimplification of it — since Eternal Sunshine explores nearly every aspect of human interaction within the confines of its densely layered 108 minutes. The film is especially effective at conveying those things in a relationship that both draw us to and drive us away from another person (complete with all the negative things we think about them during the course of that relationship, yet shy away from saying). In the end, Eternal Sunshine is disturbing, even shattering, though it never succumbs to hopeless angst. Indeed, it’s finally sad and hopeful at the same time — precisely because it’s so utterly human.
Everyone involved deserves nothing but praise — and, yes, that even includes Jim Carrey, who here finally attains the acting status that has always just seemed out of his grasp. Kudos also to the rest of the cast, who have left every vestige of their movie-star status outside the studio. There is nothing glamorous about any of them — not Kate Winslet, not Elijah Wood, not Mark Ruffalo, not even Kirsten Dunst.
Too, neither Michel Gondry’s direction nor Kaufman’s script ever makes a false move. And if you’re afraid of being subjected to the grotesquely Up With People-esque Polyphonic Spree’s stomach-churning “Reach for the Sun” song, which is being used to promote the film, relax — only a small snatch of it appears, and very much in the background.
Being the best film of a year this early on is no gargantuan feat; Eternal Sunshine, however, stands a good chance of still holding that accolade by year’s end.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke