To all those who have accused Charlie Kaufman of being all brain and no heart: Can you please just shut up now?
You know who you are. You watched the screenwriter’s stunning debut Being John Malkovich and admired only his warped originality, if anything at all. You nodded appreciatively at the reflexive conceit of Adaptation—Kaufman’s second collaboration with director Spike Jonze—but still didn’t find anything to embrace emotionally. You simply ignored the core of longing that infused Malkovich’s skewering of celebrity worship, and seemed oblivious to how perfectly Adaptation captured the terror of creative failure. Sigh.
But with Kaufman’s latest miracle, it’s time for that nonsense to end. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind may be the funniest, saddest, sweetest and most complex exploration ever filmed about the inextricable tangle of heartbreak and personal growth. Charlie Kaufman doesn’t simply write cinema’s smartest screenplays; it’s now clear that he can write cinema’s most deeply touching screenplays as well.
Of course, he still does it in a way that makes us poor civilians shake our heads in wonder. Eternal Sunshine opens on a snowy New York Valentine’s Day, as introverted Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) impulsively decides to ditch work and head to the beach at Montauk. There he meets Clementine (Kate Winslet), a free spirit like no woman he has ever known before.
Or maybe exactly like a woman he has known before. In flashback, we learn that Joel and Clementine had once been lovers, but the relationship had gone sour. When Joel learns that Clementine has undergone a new procedure developed by Lacuna Inc. to have all memories of their relationship erased, Joel decides to do the same—only to experience subconscious buyer’s remorse while Lacuna technicians are scrubbing Clementine out of his brain.
If it were nothing more than a piece of science fiction, Eternal Sunshine might still have been positively dazzling. Director Michel Gondry—who previously helmed the only less-than-awesome realization of a Kaufman script, 2001’s Human Nature—takes us on a spin through Joel’s mental landscape that’s like an extended version of the scene in Being John Malkovich where Malkovich enters his own portal. While Joel and Clementine try to escape from the process that’s eradicating the history of their life together, faces blur and twist around them; streets and apartments become impossible-to-navigate mazes. As a uniquely twisted variation on an “on the run” thriller, it’s a blast.
But the reason it’s heartbreaking is the way Kaufman and Gondry dive into Joel’s realization that he stands to lose much more than memories of a bad break up. A playful morning in bed together threatens to evaporate along with the fights and disappointments; the sweet recollection of a childhood toy vanishes because of its coincidental connection to Clementine. More crucially, everything that Joel has learned about himself—and what he would choose to do differently—over the course of their relationship could disappear as well. What Eternal Sunshine captures with breathtaking sincerity is, in part, a very human manifestation of the idea that those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.
More even than that, it captures how impossible it is to separate pain and failure from the things in our lives that are beautiful and enriching. Winslet and Carrey are both spectacular in the film’s opening scenes at portraying the tentative early steps of a relationship, but the kicker of Eternal Sunshine isn’t that Joel and Clementine have a second chance to make their relationship work. They’re clearly not right for each other, but the experience of the relationship itself means something both in small moments and in big steps. Kaufman finds something remarkably brave in venturing in where you know heartbreak will be involved, and understanding it could still be worth it.
An extended subplot in Eternal Sunshine involves Lacuna staffers (Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) getting drunk and stoned while they’re supposed to be overseeing Joel’s procedure, and the comic relief could be seen as a distraction. Yet even here, Kaufman sneaks in creepy notions of abused technology and at least one tragic realization. When Beck’s cover version of The Korgis’ “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” drifts plaintively over the closing credits, it’s like a hammer driving in the final nail of a perfectly designed structure. You’ll think; you’ll laugh; you’ll cry. And you’ll give Charlie Kaufman his props—at last—for being able to make you do all three.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, ****, >Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Rated R>