Saturday, April 17, 2004

Because you (well OK, Andy) demanded it, my review of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, which is still playing in a few theatres and highly recommended if you get a chance to see it. Another gem from the mind of Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation," "Being John Malkovich").

‘Eternal Sunshine’ a twisted trip through reality and memory
What if you could erase all your bad memories, just like wiping out an old videotape?
Remember that time you fell down the stairs in high school in view of the whole class?
Or the time your boss chewed you out in front of everyone?
Or that horrible, devastating breakup with the girl of your dreams?
The new movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” imagines that there was just that kind of memory-erasing machine, and what it might do to the fragile emotion of love.
Stuffed to the brim with heady ideas, “Eternal Sunshine” is funny and heartfelt, but it’s also twisted and oddball, and invites the kind of serious thought few Hollywood movies do. You have to keep up with it.
That’s mostly thanks to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the inimitable mind behind such brain-twisters as “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” “Eternal Sunshine” continues Kaufman’s fixation with identity — who are we, and are we sure that’s who we really are? It grafts a love story to a “Twilight Zone” science fiction idea and creates a time-looping, dizzyingly creative movie.
Directed by Michel Gondry (director of many groundbreaking music videos), the story flits around in time like “Memento” or “Groundhog Day,” in a way that’ll definitely confuse viewers who aren’t paying attention. But it all fits together snugly by the end in a bit of scripting magic.
Joel (Jim Carrey) is a lonely, dull and quiet man who, at the beginning of the film, spontaneously meets an outgoing, quirky and opinionated woman, Clementine (Kate Winslet). The couple have fun for a year or so, but when the relationship goes sour, Clementine wants to move on.
In Kaufman’s quirky world, Clementine can do this literally, by going to the mysterious company Lacuna, Inc. and having all memories of Joel’s relationship with her erased from her brain. But when Joel finds out Clementine has done this, he decides to have the procedure done himself, tit for tat.
“Is there any risk of brain damage?” a worried Joel asks Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), the procedure’s mastermind.
“Technically, it is brain damage,” he admits.
Yet memory erasing isn’t quite as easy as flicking a switch, and when Joel changes his mind in mid-procedure, things get really weird, unleashing a torrent of fantasy and reality as Joel struggles to hold on to all he’s got left of Clementine — her memory.
Fans of Carrey only in wacky “Bruce Almighty” or “Liar, Liar” roles, stay far away. Carrey is in his “serious actor” mode here, a far cry from Ace Ventura. He’s unshaved, disheveled and mumbling, in an impressive performance as a nobody who aspires to be more. Winslet matches him as the spunky, often obnoxious Clementine, one of her liveliest roles. They’re a great screen couple despite their differences.
The richly drawn supporting characters add another layer to “Sunshine.” You’ve got Kirsten Dunst as a flighty receptionist, Mark Ruffalo as a bumbling memory technician, and particularly nifty, “The Lord of the Rings’s” Elijah Wood as the anti-Frodo, a slimy weasel on the make. Everyone in the film has flaws, big and small.
“Sunshine” does dance very close to the edge of being too smart for its own good, and some viewers will likely feel it goes right over that edge.
The movie uses reality as a playground, and a good half of it is set right inside Joel’s mind, where images constantly morph as he undergoes the memory-removal process. Gondry is masterful in evoking the shifting landscape of the mind — in one scene set in a bookstore, we see in the background book titles fading and losing their words as the memory set there is slowly erased.
Gondry’s grainy, artsy cinematography shows a fine eye for detail, but it’s almost intrusive and overactive. The only clean surfaces seen in the movie are the recurring images of ice fields and sandy beaches.
But despite all the plot trickery and layered metaphors, in the end, “Sunshine” is a hopeful love story grounded in gritty, imperfect reality. Love ain’t perfect, Kaufman seems to say, but it beats the alternatives.
Thanks to that inventive script, a deep, grounded performance by Carrey and excellent supporting work, “Sunshine” manages to say something moving and true about the nature of love.
It’s the kind of movie you take a chance on, but if you let it, it will wow you. In a word, “Eternal Sunshine” is, perhaps appropriately for a film about the precariousness of memory, unforgettable.
(Rated R for profanity, adult themes. Running time 109 minutes.)
***1/2 of four.

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