Since he was quite properly lauded for his brilliantly inventive screenplay for “Being John Malkovich,” writer Charlie Kaufman has been the flavor of the month among the cinematic intelligentsia. Critics have generally done cartwheels over his later work; if “Human Nature” (also directed by Michel Gondry) gave some of them pause, they sprung back to almost robotic attention to embrace the self-referential objet d’art that he made of “The Orchid Thief” in “Adaptation,” and even the weak Chuck Barris quasi-autobiography “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” was treated respectfully. Now they’re likely to lavish similar praise on this intricate riff about love’s triumph over memory loss. But if you’ll permit a dissenting opinion, peel away the forced hipness and elaborate design, and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” isn’t really much more sophisticated than the similarly-themed but far more direct “50 First Dates.” Indeed, that Adam Sandler vehicle could be this snider picture’s raunchier sibling.
“Sunshine” is the latest in the cottage industry of pictures about memory that have proliferated since the startling success of “Memento.” But the take on the subject that Kaufman’s script is most closely connected to is John Woo’s failed action thriller “Paycheck,” which was also based (after Philip K. Dick’s original) on the premise of a deliberate, selective erasure of specific recollections. The motive in this case, though, isn’t the desire to protect proprietary industrial information; it’s to suppress unhappy emotional entanglements. As the chronology-shifting script opens, we’re introduced on Valentine’s Day to Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), a nerdy loser who impulsively grabs a train to Montauk instead of going to his (unspecified) job.
During this lark–though he hardly seems happy taking it–he meets brash, forward Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), who takes Joel back to her apartment and then on a prolonged frolic. But there is one curious touch: when Joel drops off Clementine at her doorstep, a young stranger (Elijah Wood) approaches him and asks accusingly, “What are you doing here?” We learn the reason for the strange query only later, for the script suddenly shifts to some days earlier, when Joel, preparing for Valentine’s Day, takes a gift to Clementine at the bookstore where she works, only to have her act as if he’s a complete stranger while she’s involved with an unseen beau. He then glimpses a business card for an outfit called Lacuna–get it?–and upon investigating learns that it’s a ramshackle office, headed by frumpy Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), that specializes in erasing memories of unhappy love affairs from its customers’ brains. Clementine, we learn, had undergone the procedure after her (previous) relationship with Barish had gone sour.
Angry at her apparent perfidy, Joel decides to have the procedure performed on himself as well, and so the next night, after making an amusing “map” of Barish’s brain to pinpoint the recollections to be excised, Mierzwiak’s stoogish minions Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Wood) come to his apartment to wash his cranium while he sleeps. The good doctor’s secretary, Mary (Kirsten Dunst), also shows up, to have an evening’s fling with Stan. As the erasure proceeds, we’re taken back in time to see bits and pieces of Joel and Clementine’s previous life together, shown in reverse chronological order. In the course of the operation, however, and especially as his memories reach the stage of the couple’s happy initial days, Barish rebels against it, and he attempts to retain his ties to Clementine by sneaking her into other areas of his brain–an effort that allows Kaufman and Gondry to give their imaginations free rein in Alice-in-Wonderland type sequences (or, in this context, “Being John Malkovich”-style ones) wherein Joel, among other things, retreats into his childhood (he’s played as a tyke, of course, by Carrey amid oversized props) as his memories disappear around him. Eventually Dr. Mierzwiak himself is summoned to the apartment to complete the session–which results in some surprising revelations concerning him, Mary, Patrick and Clementine, as well as a twist that affects the whole Lacuna operation. And, as the prologue has shown, the hand of fate intervenes insofar as Joel and Clementine are concerned.
If all this seems confusing (and somewhat fatiguing) in the reading, rest assured that it’s no less so in the viewing. You’ll need to be very attentive to indications of time and apparently offhanded hints to keep what’s happening straight. But that’s not really the difficulty with the picture, because the general romantic thrust of the piece is obvious even when the details might elude you. And many moments are sufficiently strange and puzzling to keep one intrigued although things seem rather a muddle.
The true problem is that, as you work through the maze of themes and time shifts, the picture isn’t terribly amusing. It’s certainly possible to admire the intricacy of Kaufman’s construction, as well as Carrey’s determination to avoid switching into “crazy guy” mode and instead keep to Joel’s slightly dissipated mien; it’s also easy to appreciate Winslet’s vibrant changes of mood (and hair), and Ruffalo’s dazed bumptiousness, and Dunst’s spunky energy, and Wilkinson’s deadpan seriousness. One can even respect Gondry’s ostentatiously virtuoso effects, reminiscent in their deliberately grungy, grainy way of the efforts of the French New Wave. (It’s more difficult to appreciate Wood’s turn, which comes across as entirely too bland and innocuous.)
But unlike “Memento,” for example, the payoff in this instance is pretty thin. For all its effortful inventiveness, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” seems little more than an elaborate parlor trick by a young fellow who’s entirely too pleased with his own precocious playfulness. Though it wants to make a statement about attraction and fate, it never manages to go very deep, and there’s a constant undercurrent of sour smugness that infects its attempt to be sweet. The very title of the picture is characteristic: it strikes a self-important tone, of course, but actually is deliberately snooty. And, as a quotation from a poem by Alexander Pope, it’s used as a prop for an adolescent joke that also offhandedly demeans one of the characters. There’s a puerile, smart-alecky quality to it that’s just a little distasteful.
The same thing is true of the film as a whole. Ultimately it seems another unpleasantly glib, shallow demonstration of Kaufman’s self-satisfied cleverness, further marred by failed pretensions to profundity about romantic destiny. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” has some good moments, to be sure, but I doubt whether even those who most praise it will really have enjoyed watching it all that much.