Saturday, February 28, 2009

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Love is a dangerous game. It's a nerve-wracking, devastating affair full of desperation, anger, regret, and a pain so indescribable that all the music in the world has never captured it all. At least, that's what love represents when you lose it. Breakups and unrequited love generally result in a sort of emotional fallout, the kind that leads a man to spill his secrets to the barkeep before drunkenly singing "their song" to a room full of increasingly uncomfortable patrons. The reminiscing doesn't come until later.

Joel Barish hasn't reached that stage yet. At the start of the film he's dealing with a nasty break-up with Clementine (Kate Winslet), a free spirit who conflicted greatly with his own withdrawn persona. Jim Carrey takes all that manic energy he usually forces upon the audience and buries it under layers of nervousness and an empathic sense of shame. Already reeling from the end of their relationship, Joel gets another sock in the gut when he learns that Clementine went to the experimental medical firm Lacuna, Inc., which specializes in memory deletion and reconstruction, to erase the relationship from her mind.

Dejected and enraged, Joel rushes in and demands that Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) perform the same procedure on him. That'll show her. Even though Lacuna is inundated for the Valentine's Day season, the doctor pencils him in and tells our hapless protagonist to go home and collect anything with a sentimental attachment to Clementine. He returns to the office, sits in a special chair, and Mierzwiak's assistants, Patrick and Stan (Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo), get to work.

And that's where any possibility of describing the plot in words ends. Director Michel Gondry has always been someone fascinated with the wavy line between dreams and reality, but that was before he partnered with modern legend Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman too deals with the bizarre and fascinating line between dreams and awareness, and the two prove to be a formidable team. The result is a film that continuously pulls the rug out from under you just as you managed to get back up after the last time.

As the process erases Joel's memories, we see his dream personification wander through each memory, constantly upended as the world literally crumbles around him. As the process whisks him into each subsequent scenario Joel finds himself forced to confront the memories he paid to have erased, and he slowly reaches an epiphany: eradicating Clem from his mind will erase the only happiness he ever knew. Eventually he manages to convince the Clementine from his memory of what's going on and the two essentially try to outrun the universe that caves in around them.

Then things just get weird. Joel, in an attempt to "protect" Clem (this is dream Clem, mind you), he runs into older memories, regressing into his childhood while Clementine stares on in bemusement. Editing isn't normally the filmmaking aspect one focuses on with a romantic comedy-drama, but Valdis Oskarsdottir had his work cut out for him when he made a film written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry. Images jump, buzz, fade and warp like a hyperspeed music video, yet the style never gets in the way of the deep human understanding Kaufman and Gondry convey.

That understanding ultimately is what propels the film from being just an interesting experiment into one of the all-time best romantic films ever made, and certainly one of the ten best of the decade. Joel's not the only one with issues; the real Clementine must deal with the confusion left by suddenly removed memories, while a mysterious subplot involves Lacuna, Inc.'s secretary (Kirsten Dunst). Patrick's got something up his sleeve as well. Each of these stories adds levels of intrigue and depth to a story already overflowing with both, and it ensures that repeat viewings are rewarding.

Eternal Sunshine is one of those films I have trouble writing about, not only because I want everyone to experience it for themselves but because I worry that I'd only get lost in my platitudes. So perfect is every element -- the editing, the direction, the off-the-wall yet piercing script, the acting -- and so expertly and originally are they arranged that it stands on its own island. I can't imagine anyone having the balls to try to duplicate it, because it's so singular any attempt to build on it will immediately be seen as a ripoff. It boasts career-best performances from Carrey and Winslet, and at the very least all the other actors put in excellent work. Kaufman's script might lack the ambition of his later opus Synecdoche, New York and the wit of Adaptation, but he injects such a knowing sadness and hope into the film that he finally proves true the saying so many dismiss as pithy: 'twas better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.

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