Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – What is love? (Baby, don’t hurt me… don’t hurt me no more…) Seriously, though. We’re not sexually monogamous by nature, but we pair up with other people exclusively anyway. Also if you really think about it, every relationship you have ever been in or are in or will ever be in ends in one of two ways: with a breakup or with death. That’s an awful lot we go through. More often than not it leads to feeling like absolute shit. Is that pain worth it all? Big questions for a two-bit movie blog, but ones that are particularly relevant in this instance. The screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is one I often refer to as a mad genius. Look at the films under his belt: Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Synecdoche, New York (the last of which he also directed). All of those movies (and this one) are batshit insane. They all touch upon the human experience in profound ways though (okay, maybe not Human Nature… although an argument could be made…). Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the reason we can say Academy Award-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (though I still prefer “mad genius”). The question, then, is “is this film Kaufman’s magnum opus?”
Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) is something of a sad sack who meet “free spirit” (and potential Manic Pixie Dream Girl) Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). The two date for some time then it ends badly. Joel has trouble letting it go until he finds out from his friends Rob and Carrie (David Cross and Jane Adams) that Clementine has undergone a new procedure to have all her memories of Joel and their time together erased. Convinced it must be a hoax, Joel goes to Lacuna Inc. to meet with Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). The procedure is very real and soon enough Joel decides that if Clementine erased him, then he wants to erase her too. Joel signs up for the procedure and the next night a couple of technicians (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) come over to wipe his memories while he sleeps. But while undergoing the procedure, Joel begins to have second thoughts as he relives not only the unpleasant end but also the highlights of his relationship with Clementine.
I absolutely fucking love this movie. The writing is clever (to be expected) and the direction is masterful (definitely to be expected). French film-maker Michel Gondry made a name for himself directing visually stunning music videos (The White Stripes’ “Fell In Love with a Girl” & “The Hardest Button to Button” and Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”) and the leap to film with a Charlie Kaufman script (Human Nature), but here is where he really found his film-making voice. This is still my favorite performance of Jim Carrey’s career. It features many very low-key and believable moments from him while accommodating the broader style of performance that he’s better known for (but it never crosses the line into mugging). Kate Winslet is magnetic and her character is actually a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype. She pretty much bluntly says that people think of her as a concept but she’s not one. It’s kind of an effective middle finger to Garden State and every other movie that thinks a quirky girl exists only to pull some sad sack out of his funk. Kirsten Dunst also gives what was (until Melancholia) a career-best performance, hinting at a real pain underneath her bubbly exterior. Elijah Wood is actually pretty creepy here (along with Sin City and the Maniac remake, he seems to be carving out a weird post-Rings niche like that). The memory scenes are filled with the whimsy and inventiveness that is Gondry’s calling card and the screenplay is filled with the weirdness and poignancy that is Kaufman’s. This movie is essential viewing. See it.
So have you seen it yet? Good. Now highlight the white space below to read my spoiler-laden discussion of the film’s ending…
So in the end of the film (actually the beginning too) Joel and Clementine meet again, not remembering each other. They take steps towards a relationship when they find out about their past relationship and all the horrible things they said about each other. Clementine retreats from the relationship, knowing that she’ll end up finding him boring and he’ll think she’s a slut and it’ll all go horribly wrong. Joel says “okay” and they laugh, with the implication that they’re going to give it another go. There has been much debate about what this means for their future. Some say that knowing where their past missteps were, they can actually make it work this time. Some say that they’re doomed to make the same mistakes. This actually veers closer to Kaufman’s original ending in which it is revealed that octogenarian Joel and Clementine have been falling in love, breaking up, and erasing each other for decades. Here’s my take: it doesn’t matter. It’s about knowing that it could go wrong. It could leave them both broken and wishing they didn’t have to remember anything. It’s about knowing that that probably WILL happen and in all likelihood they only have a few good months before it all goes toxic. It’s about knowing all that and jumping in anyway. It’s about making “okay” into one of the romantic lines in cinema history.