From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Monday, April 12, 2004

Movie Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Director - Michel Gondry; Starring - Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson; Screenplay - Charlie Kaufman; Rated R for language, drug use, and some sexual content.

When my former wife and I were still married, people who did not know us previously would invariably ask the question of how she and I met. The story is one that even today, two years removed from our divorce, I still enjoy telling. It centered around Ben & Jerry's ice cream, a role playing game called Call of Cthulhu, and a pair of chopsticks holding her hair in a bun. I in my limited worldliness had never seen a girl with her hair up like that. It was quite fetching on her, and is still one of my favorite memories of her.

Over the course of the 12+ years we've known each other, there were other memories that became tied to our time together. They center around items and events as disparate as kahlua mousse, a copper ankh, and me getting booed by 45,000 Rangers fans. There are sad ones too, not for public consumption. You could approach any number of couples you know, and get an equal number of unique stories. The magic that exists in most relationships is centered on the moments, the details, which those involved latch onto and imbue with an emotional investment that grows to be bigger than the subject itself.

All of which is a very roundabout way to start the review by saying that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is, in my opinion, the single smartest, most accurate depiction of a relationship since When Harry Met Sally, possibly exceeding it in some respects because Sunshine has more unflinching moments than Sally ever dreamed of.

That's a pretty heavy opening. But what exactly is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
Sunshine follows the story of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey). Joel is an average guy, just out of a long relationship to a woman named Naomi. He meets an eccentric young woman on a commuter train in Montauk, NY. This is Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). We get to see some early moments between Clementine and Joel, as they work their way around their own personal defenses, and try to decide if it's worth it to make themselves vulnerable to the other.
Flash forward through the credits, and we find Joel heartbroken and trying to resolve how things have gone wrong between himself and Clementine. He's trying to figure whether the situation is salvageable when he learns that Clementine has gone to a company called Lacuna, Inc. Lacuna is in the business of "erasing" troubling memories from your mind, never to be seen or heard from again. Clementine has erased Joel from her mind forever. So Joel decides to do likewise as payback. And in doing so, he comes to understand better just what it was he had to begin with.

Sounds like it would be overly schmaltzy.
In any other writer's hands, it would probably degenerate into very standard Rom-Com fare. But in the hands of Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, the movie is instead a very sharp, funny, and insightful look at relationships, what defines relationships, and how differing perspectives can make the difference between like and love, between getting along with someone, and hitting the pitch perfect connection with someone. And along the way, Kaufman touches on some of the psychological aspects of memory, relationships, and the connection between the two in a way that only he can.

The screenplay is also helped along by some top tier performances from the leads. Jim Carrey has never been better in any other film than this. He shows that he can really act and not just mug for the camera. In many respects, I think that this performance seizes on the potential he showed in The Truman Show, and really expands on it in nothing but positive ways. He's grown up as an actor in this film, and I like what I see of him as a grownup.

Kate Winslet is a worthy foil for Carrey the whole way. She has rapidly grown into one of my absolute favorite actresses working today. With this performance, you understand completely why Clementine and Joel fractured very early in the film, and then get a real understanding of why they fell in love late. It's a really well timed progression, and Winslet really makes the most out of what Kaufman and Gondry give her to work with.

The supporting roles all add the right amount of flavor to round out the story as a whole. Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood play a couple of the techs for Lacuna who do the actual erasing. Elijah is involved in a subplot that establishes very early on that he is sooooooo not a hobbit anymore. Ruffalo doesn't get as much to show off, but still fills in well enough. Kirsten Dunst has a nice role as Lacuna's receptionist, and Ruffalo's love interest. That one really goes off the map in a good way. And Tom Wilkinson pulls the last pieces together as Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the pioneer of the Lacuna method. He would appear to just be there to make the technique understandable, but he winds up playing a part in some late surprises as well.

That's a lot of good things to remember. Any other positives coming to mind?
Michel Gondry as a director was a virtual unknown to me. Prior to this, the only other feature he had directed was 2001's Human Nature, also from a Kaufman script. That feature was poorly received commercially and critically, with most of the criticism citing the film being as quirky as Malkovich, but too heavyhanded, and not as engaging. Gondry also has some video work to his credit, having worked on videos for The Chemical Brothers and Bjork. It appears to me that his earlier work with Kaufman gave him more than enough practice to make this run a much smoother ride. His camera work is really solid here, if slightly repetitive in some spots. And the way he and Kaufman have imagined how the erasing process would "feel" is really amazing. There's a scene in a bookstore that hits the erasing process just right in my mind. The onscreen changes are so subtle, that at first, I wasn't sure I was seeing things right. When it came to me what was happening, I just got the goofiest grin on my face. I said to myself "That is exactly as it should be."

Do you recall anything you DIDN'T like about it?
Not a single thing. With the understanding that memory is very subjective(as the film demonstrates very eloquently), I feel comfortable making the following qualified statement: This is as close to a perfect film as I've seen in the last ten years.

And I understand that not everyone is going to feel as strongly about it as I did. But I feel that I can safely say that this is a very thoughtful, highly engaging film. I think that it's going to take something positively otherworldly to keep this film from being my top pick for the year. Having already seen it twice, I think the only thing left for me to resolve is where it will rank amongst my all time favorites. Because I think it is that accomplished a film.

Before I rank it though, I may need to go back and see the others on my all time list. Refresh my memory some :-).