WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: Reeling from the revelation that his girlfriend Clementine has literally wiped him from her mind, miserable New Yorker Joel undergoes the operation himself, only to have a change of mind halfway through. As Joel scrambles to keep his memories safe from the process, the engineers come to the conclusion that it is far from the panacea they advertise it to be, especially when it is open to abuse by those without moral scruples.
Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) wakes up on Valentine’s Day feeling a bit off, though without knowing quite why; he definitely doesn’t feel up to work though, and on an uncharacteristic whim takes himself to Montauk beach. On the train back, he gets talking to blue-haired passenger Clementine (Kate Winslet), and although she is a little unstable the couple kind of hit it off. The next thing we know, Joel is as miserable as sin and Clementine doesn’t seem to know him from Adam, since she’s going out with a young man called Patrick (Elijah Wood) instead. When Joel’s brother-in-law hands him a card from a company called Lacuna, amazingly claiming that Joel has been erased from Clem’s memory, Joel confronts the head of the company, Dr Howard (Tom Wilkinson), and comes to the conclusion that undergoing the procedure himself – to forget about Clementine – is the only solution. Lacuna engineers Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and, disturbingly, Patrick start the operation in Joel’s house, accompanied by receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst), but Joel retains a level of consciousness and sees his memories disappearing around him. He decides that he wants to keep his memories of Clem after all and hits on the idea of dragging her into older memories where she shouldn’t belong, while the Lacuna scientists race to wipe out anything in Joel’s brain associated with her.
If this sounds like the plot of a hokey science fiction film, I apologise for giving the wrong impression: Eternal Sunshine is as far away from (say) Total Recall as it’s possible for a film to get. Charlie Kaufman’s script isn’t remotely concerned with the mechanics of altering Clem or Joel’s brain, but uses the device of memory removal to explore the significance of memories on our lives, how they shape us, and to ask whether remembering our past actions influences our future ones – or do our natures mean that we are bound to repeat our decisions, mistaken or otherwise?
As such, it’s not surprising that the story itself doesn’t hold water (for some bizarre reason Lacuna make their clients record interviews, the tapes of which simply lie about the office), since the story is not the driver of the film. What matters is Gondry’s visualisation of Joel’s frantic efforts to keep Clementine in his mind, and as the film skits about in time and swings in and out of reality, the director constructs a thrilling, beautiful, disturbing and very effective portrait of Joel’s taciturn, repressed character, and his relationship with the impulsive but insecure Clementine. The couple love and need each other but cannot forgive each others’ faults, a heart-breaking situation that will be familiar to anyone who has been in a relationship that hasn’t endured. As the rise and fall of the relationship is revealed, we also take a journey through Joel’s memories into his pre-Clementine past, showing us a little of why he’s as reserved as he is. It’s clever and poetic, charming and occasionally cute without being whimsical (a fault, so I am led to believe, with Gondry’s subsequent films), and Carrey and Winslet both give perfect performances: Jim is reined-in and introverted, barely showing a trace of his trademark manic goofiness, whilst Kate wrings every ounce of complexity out of Clem’s passive-aggressive, borderline alcoholic nature.
Apart from these performances, Ruffalo is good as the Lacuna engineer and Wood whiny and devious as Patrick, who takes everything he has learnt from Joel to seduce Clementine, although she instinctively feels there’s something wrong with him (he’s incredibly annoying, for a start). Kirsten Dunst’s Mary – in love with Dr Howard, and possibly not for the first time – forms the major subplot of the film, and while this runs in parallel with the de-programming of Joel’s brain, it is a slightly mundane story that can’t compete with Joel and Clementine’s. Mary is also tasked with being a drug-smoking youngster with a fondness for profound quotations, which doesn’t quite ring true. Of course, Mary creates the twist at the end of the film, which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen it: suffice to say it is original, feels very honest, and provides the film with a positive(-ish) and satisfying close.
In an age where computer effects are mainly used to create vast, noisy action scenes, it is lovely to find a film which uses them subtly to create the distinctive, internal world of Joel’s imagination, bleaching books in bookshops and causing a house to crumble around Joel and Clementine as they run through it. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a unique film with invention to spare, and while it’s true that you have to give it a bit of licence, just like Kaufman’s other off-beat works such as Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, if you accept the intelligent premise of the film for what it is, you are in for an affecting, lyrical treat.