Cleverly and clumsily, love cycles in and out of focus in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

December 18, 2012

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind begins on a drab winter morning in 2004. It so happens to be Valentine’s Day. Impulsively, Joel Barish leaves the New York City-bound platform and jumps onto an outward-bound train at the very last moment. After calling in sick, he disconsolately wanders the beach at Montauk, on the eastern end of Long Island.

He sits down, opens his journal and dispassionately notes that it appears to have been two years since he made an entry. Barish’s life appears to be as cold, empty and colorless as his surroundings.

However, a young woman with blue hair and an orange jacket wanders the beach as Barris does, eats in a diner as he does, waits on Montauk’s westbound train platform as he does. She waves; he ducks away. On the train, they sit in the same car. Barish sketches her; she tries to engage him in conversation, moving closer and closer to him.

She is Clementine Kruczynski, and she is drawn to Barish in ways that she doesn’t appear to understand. He certainly doesn’t understand the attraction either. 

Cut to the end of the affair. Barish goes to the bookstore where Kruczynski works, wanting to apologize, planning to present her with a gift. She flat out doesn’t recognize him. Barish discusses the bizarre snub with his friends. They produce an envelope. Barish stares uncomprehendingly at the message within. It states that Kruczynski has elected to erase Barish from her mind and that no one should mention the affair to her.

Barish goes to the office of Lacuna, the firm that sent the notice. Dr. Howard Mierzwiak and his receptionist, Mary, assure him that the erasure is real. Barish decides that he wants to undergo the process as well. The anguished man gathers up every item in his home that’s associated with Kruczynski and takes them to Lacuna.

At night, Barish swallows a sleeping pill and drops off almost immediately. Lacuna technicians Stan and Patrick take their equipment into Barish’s apartment and start zapping his memories of the Kruczynski affair.

Each memory replays itself in the slumbering man’s mind before it is erased. The scenes appear more or less in reverse chronological order (although they play back start to finish, as any scene would).

But when the technicians become a little distracted by the women in their lives, things start to go awry. Part of the problem is Barish himself. He decides that he’s made a mistake. He begins improvising frantically, working with his more or less autonomous representation of Kruczynski to find a way to save some recollection of their failed romance.

If this sounds relatively straightforward, then it’s only because I’ve sought to strip the script, or at least its first third or so, down to its essentials. Eternal Sunshine is a Charlie Kaufman joint, meaning that the story is fantastically — and in this case wonderfully — unconventional. (You may remember Kaufman from the bizarre Adaptation, which I disliked, or for the acclaimed Being John Malkovich, which I have not seen.)

While Eternal Sunshine is the story of one night, it’s also the story of a love affair, and the two are inextricable. The overnight doings of all of the above-mentioned characters — Barishm, Kruczynski, Stan, Patrick, Mary and Mierzwiak) wind up intersecting with Barish’s life in multiple ways.

Kaufman’s script, based on a story that he created along with director Michel Gondry and writer Pierre Bismuth, is both playful and clever. The convoluted presentation, reminiscent of Memento, makes it all too easy to confuse beginnings and endings.

Yet it works brilliantly. Our understanding of and expectations for the story evolve throughout the picture. And the movie features a number of beautiful and powerful moments, among them a late scene in which Barish and (his internal) Kruzynski try to fight off erasure even as the building they’re in disintegrates.

This is a story-driven movie, but it’s also a character-driven one. In time, we see both the positive qualities that pull Barish and Kruczynski together as well as the negative ones that push them apart. Similarly, the dynamics of other couples in the film are also affected by flaws of at least one of the lovers or would-be lovers.

The characters are ably portrayed by a terrific cast, led by a surprisingly serious-seeming Jim Carrey as Barish and Kate Winslet at Kruczynski. Tom Wilkinson plays Mirzwiak; Mark Ruffalo, Stan; Kirsten Dunst, Mary; and an unrecognizable Elijah Wood as Patrick.

I recently watched (500) Days of Summer, another acclaimed film that aimed to turn romantic conventions on their head. That movie has its points, but I derided it because it tried so hard to be different and quirky.

Novelty for its own sake, especially in a cliché-ridden genre, is valuable. But Eternal Sunshine is a much more ambitious and successful movie. It too is different and quirky, but that’s ultimately because the film is exploring an idea and its ramifications, not because it wants to stand out from the crowd.

In its fashion, actually, Eternal Sunshine is a gem of a science fiction movie — or speculative fiction movie, if you’d prefer to rub shoulders with a higher class of genre label. It asks a single quasi-scientific question, What if one all of individual’s memories of another person could be erased?, and runs down the answer in several different ways. Moreover, its answers are given through different characters’ reactions to different versions and stages of the process.

(As odd as the concept of a doctor offering a revolutionary memory-erasure process without any apparent oversight [or fear of liability] seems, the movie does a fine job of selling it. But I digress.)

In trying to conclude this review, I’m simply not sure how to summarize or encapsulate Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I suppose I’ll put it this way: It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s touching, it’s complicated, it’s a lot like love and it’s a lot like life. Or perhaps this is the best thing to say: Just watch Eternal Sunshine if you haven’t already done so!

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