I've often remarked when a relationship goes bad that I don't want the offending party to die -- merely to fall off the face of the earth. No suffering, please. Disappearing will suffice nicely. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has taken this notion to a technological extreme with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and in the end it seems that ignorance is not always bliss.
Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are Joel and Clementine. (She's sick of jokes about her name and Huckleberry Hound.) He's quiet and introverted, while she's a spunky, intense extrovert. Like most couples, they met inconspicuously, have had good and bad times, and sometimes wish they had never met. One Valentine's Day, Joel shows up at Clementine's work only to discover that she doesn't seem to know him. When Joel confides his confusion to friends, he discovers that they have all received a card from a mysterious Lacuna Inc., informing them that Clementine has had Joel literally erased from her mind. Distraught, Joel goes to Lacuna and signs up for the procedure himself, and Lacuna's Dr. Howard (In the Bedroom's Tom Wilkinson) assures him that the procedure is no worse than a night of heavy drinking.
Joel, semiconscious of the procedure in his sleep, changes his mind mid-removal and tries to alter his memories in order to save Clementine there. Somehow the good memories are stronger than the bad, and at just the moment when she is almost gone forever, he finds some new nook of his consciousness to hide the impulsive Clementine.
Meanwhile, the technicians who perform part of the procedure are bumbling idiots. Patrick (Elijah Wood), in a breech of professional ethics, takes advantage of Clementine's procedure and somehow inserts himself as the boyfriend in her life. Her unknowing inability to adjust without Joel spoils the romance somewhat, but Patrick is too much of a stooge to notice that there's anything wrong with that. Fellow techie Stan (You Can Count On Me's Mark Ruffalo), meanwhile, has invited the office secretary, Mary (Kirsten Dunst), over to watch the procedure. They get drunk and stoned while Joel sleeps nearby, inadvertently influencing the erasure as they carouse. All the while, Joel races through every possible memory in his mind, desperately looking for somewhere, nay, anywhere, to hide his darling Clementine.
This is the best film I've seen this year and one of the best in recent memory. Funny, witty, charming, and wise, it runs the gamut from comedy to tragedy without falling into either farce or melodrama. Its insights into human loss and redemption are complicated and difficult, well thought out but with the illusion and feel of absolute spontaneity and authentic in its construction -- and then deconstruction -- of human feelings and memory.
Director Michel Gondry is aided by an exceptional cast, whose finest performance is Carrey's. I tend to hate Jim Carrey's work in the way that I hate Robin Williams' least disciplined performances. I was not fooled by his "transformations" in The Majestic or The Truman Show into thinking that somehow he was able to tap into some elusive, expansive serious side. Rather, I felt like he was some kind of emotional alien, trying his best to reproduce the appearance of human emotion without ever having felt it. Not so here. With the exception of a momentary glimpse back into Joel's childhood, Carrey underplays to wondrous effect, carefully navigating the real drama of telling a loved girlfriend that her drinking problem is ugly or that she gets people to like her by sleeping with them -- without resorting to histrionics. Winslet, an actress I always admire, effectively balances the funny and touching without ever approaching maudlin or even sentimentality. The remaining cast is an excellent, complementary ensemble.
We all have those relationships and those memories, don't we? Ones we would will away if we could? Some are so hard that I can't bear to even think of them. Some losses are accompanied by memories so sweet that to think of them seduces me back to that place of bliss only to feel the loss again. For me, that collection includes a Santa hat, the I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy stomps the grapes, and a sunny moment on a balcony early in the morning while my sweetheart kept sleeping -- as I basked in both his dreamland smile and sunlight. To dwell on these bears a certain degree of madness. But to forget them, I think, would be even madder. Eternal Sunshine strides the line between hilarity and heartbreak with ferocious truth and dizzying ease.
I offer this beautiful, challenging film my highest recommendation.