Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard Keyword: Mind. Charlie Kaufman loves mind games, and plays them like no one else. Unique in the annals of moviedom, his scripts are literally cerebral -- they invite us into a teeming cranium, where thoughts are made visual and we get to see them in action. Keyword: Action. What Kaufman has invented is nothing less than the interior action flick, a cinematic stream-of-consciousness that turns the contemplative into the kinetic, that transforms synaptic flickerings into kisses and car crashes. It's a kind of expressionism remodelled for the pop age, drained of its sonorousness and made user-friendly -- comedy, romance, tragedy, all internalized and then, ingeniously, all acted out.
Already, Kaufman has proven himself the master of many portals. To date, the minds he has invaded include: the actor's in Being John Malkovich; the savage's in Human Nature; the celebrity's in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; the writer's (his very self) in Adaptation. And now the lover's. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (that word, again) swipes its glorious title from Pope. But rest assured -- in keeping with Kaufman's own peculiar cortex, everything else here is blessedly original.
Lovers, then. Of course, in any finite relationship, a lover's mind is a multi-layered vessel that typically fills with different emotions at different times -- at the start, joy and trembling passion; in the middle, unease and mounting restlessness; at the end, anger and profound disenchantment. Depending on whether their goal is laughter or tears, most movie romances tend to deal only at the extremes of the spectrum -- comedies at the starting line, melodramas at the finish. But not Kaufman. His neat achievement here is to make the lovers, and us, cover the entire range in a single bound, and to experience all those emotions simultaneously. That takes some doing, and more explaining. Let me try.
We appear to begin (although this will prove deceptive) in the first phase of romance. During a pre-credit sequence that extends for a full 15 minutes, boy meets girl. On Valentine's Day, 2004, Joel (a shaggy and shockingly passive Jim Carrey) lumbers out of bed to face another eternal February morning. Apparently depressed, certainly lugubrious, he decides to skip work and forsake Manhattan for an outing to Montauk, where, on a frozen beach, fate dispenses a total stranger named Clementine (Kate Winslet). A free and lively spirit -- her hair is bluer than his mood -- she breaks through Joel's barrier of reserve and an amorous spark is ignited. A night later, romance has flamed in the ice of winter.
Or has it re-flamed? Flashback to a year earlier, and the movie's prevailing conceit: Seems the two already had a relationship, which ended badly. So badly that Clementine has resorted to a modern version of Eloisa's nunnery -- a place aptly called Lacuna. It's a shabby clinic that specializes in erasing from the mind all traces of a corroded love affair. Just hook up the electrodes, program the computer, and ZAP -- Joel, the whole relationship, has vanished from her memory. Learning of her treachery, he decides to follow suit, hiring the same outfit to perform the same service. So a pair of rather cavalier technicians (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) connect him to the hardware. Cue the action -- inside the wired brain of our slumbering hero.
There, in dramatized vignettes that slowly crumble with every hit on the delete key, we witness where the romance turned sour -- his growing distrust, her creeping boredom.
But, there too, we see where the romance was sweet -- his surging confidence, her joie de vivre. Of course, the sweet is disappearing right along with the sour and, deep in his unconscious, Joel makes a decision: to do battle with the machine, trying to preserve a vestige of Clementine somewhere in the recesses of his grey matter. Only then can he awaken with a shred of her memory intact.
That's the bizarre, often surreal, drama of the film's elongated second act.
Occasionally, director Michel Gondry cuts away from this inner turmoil to the two attendants, who are embroiled in romantic entanglements of their own -- one with the clinic's receptionist (Kirsten Dunst), the other with . . . sorry, can't give it away. Also on hand is the head doctor (Tom Wilkinson), a guy with a whole different amorous agenda.
Things are getting a bit cluttered, you wonder? Well, yes. This middle section will test your patience on occasion, largely because the complexity of a Kaufman script requires a compensating simplicity in the direction, which Gondry doesn't always provide. Spike Jonze knew better: In both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, he was careful to keep his style clean and basic -- a rare case of the director deferring to the writer.
But Gondry (who also worked on Human Nature) can't resist a few too many flashy edits and gimmicky angles, tactics that only add more mania to an already brimming plot.
Happily, at other times, the sights are beguiling. All movies simulate dreams, yet this one -- when inside Joel's head -- goes beyond the simulation and into the murky world of dream logic, so odd, yet so familiar, so credibly incredible. And the principals are right up to the challenge. Carrey does some miraculous erasing of his own, stamping out his rubbery comic persona and replacing it, appropriately in this case, with nothing. Maybe a little too much of nothing. He's bland on a stick -- a near-blank (spotless) slate that awaits the jottings of experience. In a neat reversal of type, it's Winslet who's expected to fill the goofy quotient. She responds beautifully -- hovering on the border of ditziness, but never quite crossing over. Finally, the supporters (especially Ruffalo, the most flexible of actors) are exemplary, and with good reason -- they're all given delicious subplots to slip into and wiggle out of.
Better still, after exercising that patience, you'll be rewarded with a terrific finale. The twists here are the rare sort that seem both narratively surprising and emotionally engaging, particularly the one that boxes us into this interrogative corner. Breathing hard from the journey, we're asked: Would you, at the happy outset of romance, still proceed if you knew the sad outcome -- in other words, would you embrace love if you felt its singular joy and its certain sorrow simultaneously? Basking in eternal sunshine, shivering in eternal shadow, the movie resonates along with the question, which hangs in the changeable air. As for the answer, if you count yourself among the living, there's really only one, and it, at least, is easy.