Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


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.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


    Joel (Jim Carrey) is a rather milquetoast man who meets up with free spirit Clementine (Kate Winslet), and they become romantically involved. However, they endure a messy breakup and Clementine goes to a business called Lacuna, Inc., where she has all of her memories of Joel erased. Not wanting to be left out, Joel also goes to have his memory erased. However, soon after it begins, Joel realizes that he wants to keep the memory of Clementine, so he tries to reverse the process.

    Well, if you’re familiar with Kaufman’s work, then you know what your getting yourself into. This is just as weird if not weirder than his previous work, Being John Malkovich. I knew what I was getting myself into, but 90% of the movie I was saying to myself “What the hell is going on?”, but in a good way. It opens with Joel calling in sick for work and going on a different train, heading for Montauk. He meets Clementine and they hit it off. Now this is about 15 minutes into the movie, then out of nowhere come the opening credit sequence. I will admit, I thought it would be different, but I’m glad that it is the way it is, the movie is 80% of the time in Joel’s head.

    If you think you know Carrey, think again. This movie is his best performance, better than Majestic, Truman show and all of his comedic roles (which is what I love him for). Just looking at his face from the second we see him, we feel his pain, then like that, we feel his joy, embarrassment and hate. Just awesome acting on his part, and Winslet was great as the free spirit who never seems satisfied. The supporting cast all work well in their small, yet important roles. Oscar nominations for Winslet and (crosses fingers) Carrey.

    But if I were to bet any money on any Oscar nominations it would obviously be the writing, what a mess, but beautifully constructed. You think to yourself, is that scene really necessary? Then ten minutes later you think to yourself how brilliant it was, that’s beautiful, crazy, give me whatever he’s smoking kind of writing. Charlie Kaufman’s writing is always clever, but this time he’s one-upped himself by making something simultaneously bizarre and emotionally engaging. It seemed like his earlier movies were clever for the sake of cleverness, but ‘Eternal Sunshine’ manages to dazzle you with it’s originality and it’s poignancy. The fact that this movie was able to wrap such profound loss, emotional tenderness, and hope in such a self-consciously stylized package illustrates the incredible talent of the people behind it.

    Michel Gondry’s use of vibrant coloring and quick camera movement give the film a very involving first hand feeling. The constant use of the handy cam is very all involving for the viewer, and I suppose that this is exactly what is needed in such a personal movie. His work on the dream sequences is incredible as well. He decides to use more practical effects than what we see today with computers.

    Eternal Sunshine is a tragic, yet beautiful film that sits at the top of my list of “Best of 2004”.


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