Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Mind Over Madder

I guess I’m starting to catch up a bit to the bizarrity that is Charlie Kaufman’s brain. Not that I didn’t love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I was only 50 percent blown away by it. Like how something of the surprise is spoiled when you know there’s a “twist” in a film even if you don’t know what the twist is, just knowing that a movie is written by Kaufman prepares you for the fact that it’s going to be odd and discomfiting and off-kilter, and so because you’re expecting that, the impact of the oddness is lessened a bit.
That’s not really fair to Kaufman or Sunshine, I know, and there may be other factors at work that make the film feel only half as mind-blowing as it might otherwise feel. It’s the first Kaufman film that is only a smidge exaggerated beyond something that most of us can identify with — I mean, who, honestly, saw much of themselves in a trip through John Malkovich’s head, as entertaining as the trip was? The “Charlie Kaufman” who tries to adapt The Orchid Thief is easily appreciated by those of us who fancy ourselves writers, true, but there’s something warmly, recognizably, ubiquitously human in Sunshine, cuz don’t we all fall in love and sometimes love it and hate it at the same time?

That’s what happens to Joel Barish (which sounds suspiciously similar to “Chuck Barris,” of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind infamy, the screenplay of which was also written by Kaufman, and it makes me wonder whether he isn’t making some connection between the two films, in the intersection they share about the stuff that’s all in our heads, and the connection between insanity and being-in-love). Joel falls in love with Clementine Kruczynski and almost instantly is driven crazy by her, and her by him. They’re so clearly wrong for each other, and so clearly perfect for each other, and almost everyone alive will know what this means. Joel is played by Jim Carrey (Bruce Almighty, The Majestic), and this is the role he’s needed for a long time, in which he can use his fidgety mania not to talk out of his ass but to create a character who makes you ache for him, he’s so confused and in pain in a way that we’re all familiar with. Clem is played by Kate Winslet (The Life of David Gale, Quills) as a lovable messed-up gal, but not a romantic-comedy phony kind of Hollywood lovable messed-up gal, but like a real messed-up person like we all actually know (and may actually be ourselves, though we wouldn’t admit it).

So they break up, and both end up at Lacuna — here’s where the particular Kaufman weirdness comes in — where Dr. Howard Mierzwiak erases the memory of the person you can’t stand to hate yourself for missing. And there’s all sorts of fallout from the erasing procedure, and it speaks to all of the very human kind of stuff we’re all used to dealing with concerning the people we love: like how, for the most important people in our lives, it seems like you can’t ever remember a time when you didn’t know them, and how those people end up making connections in our heads that have nothing, really, to do with them — so much so for Joel that he ends up getting childhood memories erased that have nothing to do with Clem except for the remotest tangential association. He can’t ever really erase the memory of Clem and still retain who he is himself because she’s become a part of his whole life.

And that runs through the film, too: this idea that if we’re not quite destined to fall in love with whom we fall in love with, we fall for those people because of who we are ourselves as people: because we like to do X activity and visit Y place, and if our lives will intersect with someone else’s there once, it’s sure to happen more than once, and erasing memories won’t change that.

Once you catch on to how Kaufman has structured his story here — and it’s easy to catch on right from the beginning — there’s not quite the pleasure in unraveling how his mind is working as there has been with his other films. Because I did catch on, a lot of what happens after seems almost repetitious — I’m tempted to say that Sunshine almost needs the compactness of a 30- or 40-minute short, and that perhaps it’s stretched a little too thin for a feature.

But only perhaps. There’s a lot to love here, besides Carrey and Winslet: Tom Wilkinson (Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Importance of Being Earnest) as the doctor and Kirsten Dunst (Mona Lisa Smile, Levity) as the receptionist whose hopelessly in love with him; Mark Ruffalo (In the Cut, View from the Top) and Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over) as the memory-erasing technicians, who’re a little goofy and a little creepy and very funny in a smart, subtle way. Director Michel Gondry (Human Nature) is a music-video vet, and for all the talk about the negative effect of music videos on film, he makes Sunshine feel like one of the few really good films that are infused with that quick-cut energy — the mad dash through Joel’s memories during the erasing procedure certainly benefits from that.

And then there’s simply the wonderful optimism of the film, which you mightn’t expect from a movie about being so bitter over a breakup that you’ll willing to get your brain fried. But it’s there all the same: like how people say second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience. Like how, no matter how many time we get our little hearts broken, we’re always ready to do it again, and that that’s a good thing.

[reader comments on this review]

share and enjoy