2009 UPDATE: It’s been more than five years since I wrote this review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and my appreciation for this film has only deepened since then. It went on to become quite an important film to many of my colleagues, so important, in fact, that when the team of a dozen or so film critics at Christianity Today voted on the films that were most important to them in 2004, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind took the #1 spot on the list. Remarkable, considering how many excellent films were released in 2004. (As a matter of fact, while Christianity Today‘s readers probably anticipated that The Passion of the Christ would be the CT critics’ choice for #1 movie of the year, The Passion didn’t even place in the Top 10.)
If you could, what memories would you delete?
Recently, I set up shop in a new office on the campus of the university I attended several years ago. I don’t believe in ghosts, but the ol’ alma mater is haunted with memories. Over there—the classrooms in which I tried to comprehend Donne, Dostoevsky, and Derrida. And there—the cafeteria where I consumed mass quantities of grilled peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. And there—a sprawling lawn where my first rock band survived a disastrous performance. It’s a joy to have this mini-tour of the past every day.
But the place is also crowded with painful memories of a failed friendship, broken trust, and humiliation. The prospect of revisiting those memories again made me pause before relocating to this place. I did not want to be reminded. But what a blessing awaited me! Several places of personal significance had been demolished and replaced with strange new structures that mean nothing to me at all! This has had an interesting effect—I never dwell on those memories anymore. It is as if those memories have been deleted. I have to work hard to recover them.
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the characters have that option—they can have their unwanted memories erased.
Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) supplies this service through Lacuna, an obscure company promising to improve your life by sifting out signs of things you wish you had not experienced. Mierzwiak and his irresponsible, pot-smoking staff (Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and trainee Elijah Wood) schedule consultations with customers to target bad memories. They box up all tangible evidence of the memories (photos, gifts, mementos, diary entries), file them away, and then get into the customer’s brain for “memory surgery.” Cards are sent out to any related individuals, informing them that they have been deleted from the customer’s memory: Would they please, out of courtesy, refrain from contacting that person again?
That is exactly what Joel (Jim Carrey) decides to do with memories of his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). He’s upset about the breakup, which occurred when Clementine decided to axe Joel from her own memory.
Most films about technological breakthroughs tend to dwell on what would happen if something went wrong. So, of course, as Joel undergoes Clementine-erasure, something goes terribly wrong. While technicians fuss over 3-D brain schematics, he is stranded, unconscious, wandering in a dream-state of confused memories. As he staggers through overlapping episodes of his past, he encounters Clementine for the first time … again. He remembers his infatuation and all of the things that first caught his attention. It makes him reconsider his decision. But what can he do?
As he falls into panic, details of this memory world begin to disappear. Memories are being sent to the Trash Bin Folder of the doctor’s computer. Frantic, Joel grabs Clementine—or at least the memory of her—and starts heading for the dark alleys and bomb shelters of his mind. The chase is one of the most exhilarating and original scenes in the history of chase scenes.
Anybody who saw Being John Malkovich or the Academy-award-winning Adaptation will quickly recognize the signature surrealism of writer Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman seems obsessed with exploring his characters’ psychological makeup, and Sunshine feels like the fruition of ideas that were beginning to grow in his previous scripts.
While Kaufman’s previous scripts seemed tailor-made for the quirky talents of director Spike Jonze, this story seems a perfect fit for Michel Gondry, who makes Eternal Sunshine a memorably zany rollercoaster ride through a wonderland of bizarre landscapes and shifting reality. Gondry’s first feature collaboration with Kaufman, Human Nature, received discouraging reviews and vanished from theatres. But Eternal Sunshine plays to his strengths. Gondry’s most memorable works have been his brilliantly designed music videos for artists like Bjork, and Radiohead. This great feature-length work is sure to earn him even grander projects.
Gondry maps out Joel’s past with breathtaking imagination and sleight-of-hand, creating a visual collage from Joel’s memories that is a masterpiece of editing and aligning entirely different times and places. It’s not a new idea; the great Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece The Mirror is a surreal and profound poem sewn from the threads of his memory. But Gondry’s a more playful, puckish storyteller. He cannot resist the wild possibilities presented by Kaufman’s script. Sometimes it’s as if Joel’s past has been disassembled like a LEGO project and haphazardly pieced together into something frightening and new. I’ve never seen something so true to the experience of dreaming, from the way people’s faces morph from one thing to another to the way events take place against incongruous backdrops. These imaginative tangents are enough to show up most Hollywood productions as creatively bankrupt. Gondry joins a short list of directors—alongside Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Richard Kelly, Sofia Coppola and David O. Russell—who will inspire a new generation of inventive artists.
Gondry gets great work from his lead actors. For the first time, Jim Carrey seems less like a maniac and more like the kind of guy you’d like to talk with over coffee. It’s his most mature performance, something we caught glimpses of in The Truman Show. On the other hand, Kate Winslet has spent far too long in stuffy, stifling roles, and here she lets her explosive energy break through. She makes Clementine an irresistibly attractive flibbertigibbet whose whims are as surprising as the changing color of her hair (which shifts from “Tangerine” to a color stolen from a Tom Waits lyric—”Blue Ruin.”) She’s the highlight of the film, and the first appealing female character Kaufman has devised.
The supporting cast is also surprising. Wilkinson is properly preoccupied with his technology, so that we sense he is driven by something he himself would rather forget. His assistants are a baffling bunch—amusing, entertaining, but hardly compelling. Ruffalo seems to squint at life through a thick fog in spite of his thick glasses. Elijah Wood, in his first significant post-Frodo role, plays a likeable trainee until we see what a fiend he is at heart. Kirsten Dunst turns her role as a foolish secretary into something complicated and broken. But their part of the story feels too frivolous to pull off the emotional and dramatic turn that takes place in the final act.
Eternal Sunshine is unique in the Kaufman canon for other significant reasons. Being John Malkovich portrayed human beings as irredeemably depraved and selfishly opportunistic. Adaptation‘s characters, in their desire for personal satisfaction, descended into base behavior as well. Eternal Sunshine‘s characters may have damaged their lives beyond repair, but they are fumbling toward wisdom that should be clearer to the viewer than it is to them.
Most importantly, the film offers powerful insights about relationships. Joel and Clementine have a chance of enduring if they refuse to forget the things they love about each other in the midst of hardship. Memory erasure, like most break-ups and divorces, is just a flight from the fact that love is hard. Even though Joel and Clementine are not married, viewers may come away with a deeper understanding of marriage, about submitting to each other at great personal cost for a higher reward.
Kaufman also emphasizes our neediness as human beings. Most Hollywood films tell us we have everything we need within ourselves. Eternal Sunshine indicates that we need each other, even in those times when togetherness disrupts happiness. Happiness is based on temporal, unstable things, but joy comes from transcending the temporal and holding on through all the waves of infatuation and falling out, lust and letdown, delight and disappointment.
Great art reflects the truth in a way we could not have seen by any other means. Kaufman’s chronologically confused comedy is a unique, personal, bittersweet film, and I don’t know any other filmmaker who could have made anything like it. I won’t call it a “masterpiece” so soon after its release; I’ve come to believe that no one should jump to that conclusion until at least a decade has passed. But it won’t surprise me if this film is someday considered one of “The Great Movies.” It takes its audience on an extraordinary emotional journey, even as it weaves many different storytelling genres together. It’s wide open to interpretation, but I suspect that many will cherish it.
Eternal Sunshine makes me glad that I cannot delete bad memories in moments of weakness. Those unpleasant echoes of failure and betrayal inform my decisions every day. They keep my ego in check and help me steer clear of similar pitfalls. They also remind me that my hope lies not in my capacity to run my own life, but in the possibility of grace.
Focus Features presents a film directed by Michel Gondry. Written by Charlie Kaufman. Starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst, Thomas Jay Ryan, Jane Adams, David Cross, Gerry Robert Byrne. Running time: 108 minutes. Rated R (for language, some drug and sexual content).