When is a movie more like a concentrated dose of psychotropic drugs? I don’t know but chances are that Charlie Kaufman is somehow involved. In Eternal Sunshine, the reality-bending screenwriter behind Adaptation and Being John Malkovich has delivered a story that doesn’t bend reality as much as fold, spindle and mutilate it.
This film takes us on a nightmare jaunt through the mind of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), a lonely man who, on an impulse, skips work to head on up to Montauk, where him meets an unusually animated girl named Clementine (Kate Winslet), who has hair colors to match every possible mood. They think they know each other, but maybe it’s just from the bookstore. They click and spend the rest of the day and the night hanging out. In the morning, Joel drops her at her home. Before he can leave, a man he doesn’t know (Elijah Wood) knocks on his window and asks suspiciously, “What are you doing here?”
From this point forward, Eternal Sunshine plays with time and logic in the same way a hungry lion plays with a dead zebra. The next thing we know, Clementine has just left Joel after two years of living together and, even worse, acts like she doesn’t know him. As it turns out, she really doesn’t know him, having undergone a medical procedure that erased all of her memories of him from her mind. When he learns this, he decides to have the same thing done to himself.
Joel brings everything that might remind him of Clementine to the clinic run by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), where they use these items to locate the memories that they need to erase, then the doctor’s assistants, Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Wood), take him back to his apartment where they spend the night performing the procedure on a sleeping Joel.
The film shifts between the apartment and the dreamlike confines of Joel’s thoughts as watches his life with Clementine get wiped clean. As his memories move further and further back in time, and the memories get happier and happier, Joel realizes he doesn’t want her deleted from his life. He starts to seek out parts of his life that don’t involve Clementine in the hopes of saving some traces of her.
In the apartment, we quickly realize that the somewhat sleazy Patrick is the man that knocked on Joel’s car window. He’s been using Clementine’s deleted memories of Joel to romance her. In fact, he leaves in the middle of the procedure to go out with her. Stan fails to notice Joel’s efforts because he’s too busy getting stoned and having sex with Mary (Kirsten Dunst) the clinic’s receptionist.
Director Michel Gondry‘s visuals are every bit the equal of Kaufman’s bizarre story, using every visual trick in the book, digital or otherwise, to realize the twists and turns of Joel’s otherworldly trip through his own past.
Jim Carrey is one of those comic actors who, like Robin Williams, can overwhelm a film when he unleashes the full force of his improvisation skills without someone to reel him back him. When he dials it back as he does here, Carrey becomes an actor of considerable range. Kate Winslet is Kate Winslet, giving a performance that perfectly matches the multiple hues of her hair in this film.
The film explore two fantasies that must have occurred to millions of people emerging from bad relationships. One is the ability to forget the whole thing, to wipe the whole painful experience away. I don’t think I’d ever want to do that to myself, but I wouldn’t mind past girlfriends forgetting some of my mistakes. The problem with this solution is that we would take out the good memories along with the bad, as Joel discovers too late. We also lose the lessons learned by the mistakes we make.
The other fantasy is the ability to start fresh with the same person. Eternal Sunshine acknowledges that this is problematic because we remain the same people we were, prone to same errors we made the last time through.
In the end, this movie decides, our memories, good and bad, are who we are. Even if we could, getting rid of the bad ones wouldn’t make us better people.