Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, and Tom Wilkinson
Directed By: Michael Gondry
Written By: Charlie Kaufman, Michael Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth
It’s well known that, unlike what most Hollywood movies will tell you, most relationships do not end with “happily ever after.” More often than any of us like to admit, they end in anger and heartbreak. There is an age old question that we all have heard, “is it better to love and lost or to have never loved at all?” Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind takes this question and spins it within the premise of the film: if you could erase someone from your memory, would you? Specifically, are you willing to give up all the good times in order to forget the bad? While it gives us the obvious answer, Eternal Sunshine goes about it in an entertaining and unique way.
The film centers on Joel (Carrey) and Clementine (Winslet), a couple in a clear case of opposites attracts. Joel is very reserved and would rather draw/write his thoughts in a journal while Clementine is quite impetuous and would much prefer to just go out and experience life. The relationship goes sour, naturally. Joel ends up saying something he doesn’t really mean, but the damage over time was already done: it was just the tipping point. When Joel tries to visit Clementine at her job at Barnes and Noble, she doesn’t recognize him. He learns from a third party that his now ex-girlfriend has a procedure done to erase Joel from her memory. After doing some investigation on the matter, Joel decides to do the same.
This is where the fun begins. The procedure is done while one is sleeping and affects the dreams of the patient. At least this is the case for Joel. He becomes very aware of what’s going on and unconsciously fights the memory erasing to the best of his ability. To say more will be giving far too much away. Does he win out in the end? What of Clementine, the memory and the actual person? Are there any chances for reconciliation? Well, you’ll have to watch it to find out, won’t you?
This is a very imaginative film. Much like Inception, a bulk of the movie happens inside someone’s mind. In this case, we’re along with Joel for the ride. That being true, the laws of reality go out the window as long as the story is still in that setting. As we journey with him, we see some fantastic things. Memories disappear and collapse around his unconscious self, no matter how hard he fights it. Also, the movie isn’t completely in sequence. We bounce around a bit. I would say more, but that would give away too much (again). Lastly, there’s a great scene of forced perspective much like we saw in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, just with more of a humorous twist to it.
Fantastic elements aside, this is really what I would call a “break up” movie as I suggested in the opening paragraph. More often than not, the audience is left wondering why anyone would be with either of the lead characters. I can point to 2010’s Blue Valentine as an example of this. As well made as that film is, would any of us actually want to be with either character? I would venture to say, “no,” and would worry about anyone who would. Luckily, Eternal Sunshine avoids this trap. Joel and Clementine have flaws, there’s no questioning that. However, one could see why people would want to be with either of them. They aren’t “bad” people by any means, they just aren’t right for each other (probably).
That brings us to the heart of the movie and the questions I posed at the very beginning. I think whenever any of us has our heartbroken, we want more than anything for the emotional pain to just be over. Perhaps we wish that there was actually a procedure like the one found in the film to help us forget everything. There’s even a character found within the story (Kirsten Dunst’s Mary) who things this is nothing but a good thing (though her motivations for saying this may not be exactly pure, either). There are many of us that might agree with her. I would suggest, as the characters in the movie do, that while it’s a great short term solution, we simply lose too much in the process. Joel fights the treatment so hard because he discovers that, despite how it ended, he would miss the memory of Clementine so much that it outweighs the pain he is feeling over the breakup. The conclusion the two of them make together is truly a beautiful moment.
I was unaware of the cast involved in this; it’s an all-star one at that. Dunst does a fine job in her role; one I would say pretty much represents the audience. David Cross makes a nice extended cameo as a friend whose marriage is on the rocks. There’s Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood as partners who actually do the procedure. Wilkinson is given the most interesting part as the seemingly altruistic doctor helping all of these poor souls with their painful memories. Naturally, all three have more of a story that initially meets the eye.
In the end, it’s mostly a two person show. Carrey continues to impress in a more dramatic role than many long time fans are accustomed to. I don’t recall him doing anything over the top during the course of the movie. It’s a much understated turn, something that’s required for the part. Next to Truman, this is probably Carrey’s greatest performance. Winslet is perfect as Clementine. She captures every little thing the character is about and in doing so creatures a very memorable character, personality warts included.
Bottomline: I have a confession to make: this is a revisit for me. The first time I tried watching Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind was when it first came out on DVD and I had the flu. I couldn’t finish it due to my illness. I just got around to giving it a try. It’s sad it took so long as this is simply a great movie. It contains two memorable and flawed characters, yet neither comes off as completely unlikeable as is often the case with “break-up” movies. More importantly than any of that, it gives us a great message; a message that’s all too easy to forget.