More noise than signal

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

The latest mildly baffling movie to emerge from the pen of Charlie Kaufman turns out somewhat unexpectedly to be one of the best science fiction movies to appear in a good little while. Wait, don’t go just yet, as it’s not the nerd baiting lasers and robots kind of sci-fi. Eternal Sunshine shares more in common with Phillip K. Dick’s work, or perhaps some whacky amalgam of Cypher and Memento, both films quite whacky enough already, thankyousoverymuch. Despite the dual handicaps of being tremendously convoluted by any conventional standard and starring gurner-in-chief Jim Carrey, this turns out to be something rather enjoyable indeed.

Briefly, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) has invented a process that can erase the complete existence of something or someone from your brain. After the breakup of their relationship, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) impulsively books herself in for a mind wipe which causes Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) almost as much anguish as the end of their affair did. Simple solution – scrub Clementine out of his memory just as Clementine did. Submitting one night to the tender mercies of technicians Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood), Joel takes a trip through his memories of their failed relationship as they’re sent to oblivion realising quickly that this isn’t the way to deal with things.

Trying to hold on to some memory of Clementine, he’s aided in part by Stan being more interested in smoking weed with company secretary Mary (Kirsten Dunst). Meanwhile, Patrick is attempting to use Joel’s extracted techniques to pick up Clementine, in between bouts of stealing her underwear with the frantic justification that ‘they were clean!’, so I suppose at least he can’t be described as sticky fingered.

Given that it’s a film that largely takes place inside someone’s head, where the main characters are actually memories of those characters animated by Joel’s consciousness it’s unavoidable that there’s going to be the occasional bout of surreality. Perhaps more surprising is how accessible it all is, the willful weirdness of Being John Malkovich replaced with an altogether more narratively justifiable oddness. Even my current cinematic technique pet hate, the non-linear narrative works in this context as Joel strives to ‘hide’ Clementine in along with various earlier memories where she doesn’t belong (“File me under humiliation!”). Carrey’s usual hamtastic over-emoting is restrained to areas where it’s appropriate, and as such works far more effectively that as part of his usual schtick.

It’s Carrey’s best performance in years, perhaps even his best although Man On The Moon provides a hard target to aim for. Joel Barish is about as far away from the roles Carrey is famous for as it’s possible to be; quiet, introspective, shy, mumbling. Perhaps the most reserved we’ve seen Carrey, you’ll learn more about his capacity as a fine actor from five minutes of this film than three hours of Ace Ventura. Not that Carrey will give much of a monkey’s, given the dollars lavished upon him for adequate performances in adequate films such as Bruce Almighty, but there’s always a slight frustration that the roles he’s genuinely brilliant in are always overshadowed by the roles where he gurns for a few hours falling down occasionally.

Whereas the only thoughts provoked by recent critical favourite (though not in this house) 21 Grams was ‘Who thought this editing sequence would be a good idea?’, Eternal Sunshine shows not only an enjoyable and compelling story but a novel way of looking at relationships and how we deal with them. Even if the final message presented by Kaufman isn’t a lot more complicated than the hoary old ‘it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all’, the way it’s presented as well as it’s central gimmick, the possibility of the erasure of troubling relationships pretty much forces you to think of you own experiences and perhaps even reopen old wounds. If that’s not a mark of good storytelling and filmmaking then I know not how to judge anything.

It’s a credit to Carrey and Winslet’s supporting cast as much as it is a tribute to Kaufman’s maturing writing skills that you might even care as much about Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson’s characters as you do the leads, with a rarely seen affecting sub-plot that somehow inherits the complexity of the main story without any of the exposition around it. There’s not much in here to get riled by, to be frank. Perhaps the mid section drags a little, probably due to the way Barish was written. There’s always a certain air of angsty inadequacy to Barish, which might or might not be justifiable given what we learn about him over his internal journey, but his moping can grow a little tiring on occasions.

A little churlish, but it’s enough of a nagging concern to stop fully buying into wishing for his happiness and truly feeling for his character in the way we could during, say Lost in Translation. Winslet’s character is just as flawed, as everyone is, but at least she has the advantage of being a creation of someone else’s memory for the bulk of the film. Truth be told it’s hard to know what to make of Winslet’s role; she’s almost used as a supporting character inside Barish’s head rather than a true lead.

All told, for all it’s surreal narrative innovation and occasional outlandish images, Eternal Sunshine is at heart an affecting love story and a slightly different slant on this particular aspect of the human condition than we’re used to seeing from standard issue rom-coms. It deserves it’s success as much as you deserve to see it, if nothing else to see what Jim Carrey’s really capable of.