[By Ott Lindstrom]
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s prologue is, at first glance, the set up for an uninspired romantic comedy: against the backdrop of a frigid New York Valentine’s Day, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet spend seventeen minutes make puppy eyes at each other, exchange playful dialogue and do their very best to be adorkable. Out of context, it’s a damning first impression, coming across as a sort of twee understated indie thing where copious amounts of mumbling and awkwardness attempt to stand in for actual wit or humor. Then the seventeen minutes is over and the mood changes with the brutal swiftness of a bullet to the head as the titles drop, accompanied by a shot of Jim Carrey sobbing alone in a dark car.
There is something oddly compelling about watching Jim Carrey cry, a morbid satisfaction akin to sticking a thumbtack into a child’s balloon or popping the head off a dandelion. When the man’s famous rubbery visage, so adept at pulling off wacky expressions in accompaniment to funny noises, is scrunched into a tear drenched cascade of wrinkles, you can’t help but be enthralled. So it is with many aspects of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michael Gondry’s examination of failed romance wearing the guise of a low concept science fiction film. This is not a “feel good” movie by any means; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is to romantic comedies what Spec Ops: The Line is to modern shooter video games, an assumption-manipulating, cliché-eviscerating exercise in subversion and indictment that still manages to engage and fulfill despite its many layers of grim cynicism.
The majority of this engagement is embodied in Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Both actors are in top form here, as ex-lovers Joel and Clementine who opt to undergo a procedure to erase all their memories of their relationship. Carrey is marvelously low key, turning in a quiet and nuanced performance at odds to his usual over-the-top comedic shenanigans. If it weren’t for the few rough patches where Carrey’s broad comic chops are given the opportunity to manifest (mostly in the form of almost cringe-worthy tone-breaking displays of facial muscle acrobatics), one could nearly be convinced he had been dealing in empathetic, dramatic roles his entire career. Sadly, it is perhaps this abstracted triumph of Carrey’s acting that is the biggest tragedy in a film full of heartbreaks: it is closing in on a decade since the film’s debut and Mr. Carrey hasn’t set foot near any project with even a fraction of Eternal Sunshine’s depth since.
Kate Winslet is equally great as Clementine, a brilliantly constructed corruption of the manic pixie dream girl romantic archetype. To paraphrase her catchphrase, Clem is a very fucked-up girl, whose litany of eccentricities comes off as more sad and petulant than endearing. The brash impulsiveness Winslet brings to the role is a perfect foil to Carrey’s quiet uncertainty. While their romantic chemistry feels a touch lacking (as it should, considering the context), the interplay between the two is nevertheless extraordinarily pleasurable to watch.
The background cast, while solid, feels more like a collective means to an end than an actual roster of fleshed out characters. Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood provide flashes of comic relief (far more seamlessly than Carrey does) and Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson provide a moderately interesting subplot that channels into the main twist of the third act. The actors are all good at what they are doing, but many of them feel one note and they are all completely overshadowed by the main duo.
Gondry’s directing and Charlie Kaufman’s writing are all but impeccable. Apart from the clunky way in which the script brings Joel and Clementine back together at the end of the film and the supremely awkward way in which the title’s source quote is worked in, Eternal Sunshine is fantastically constructed and presented, taking joy in toying with the viewers’ preconceived notions and slamming them in the face with jarring juxtaposition. The sci-fi aspects of the movie are nicely minimalistic, with no bloated technobabble to bog down the excellent dialogue (this is one of the most eminently quotable films I have seen in a good long while). The nonlinearity that stems from the science fiction elements is easy to grasp and follow, managing to be clever without confusing. The special effects, few and far between, are pleasant in their subtlety; an image of Joel’s storybook childhood home transforming into a bleak, tumbledown wraith as his memory is scrubbed is beautiful and melancholy.
And that is the best way to describe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: a beautiful melancholy. By the time the film has come to its inexorable conclusion, there isn’t a scrap of hope left for the characters, only the putrescent stench of dead love lying thick over the chilly streets of a New York February. And yet, despite the frustrating futility of Joel and Clem’s love life, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is still extraordinarily satisfying; the creativity and craft of the creators and the talent of the leads is more than enough to justify letting a little heartbreak into your life.
4.5/5 “You should probably check this out. Now.”
Available on Netflix Instant Streaming