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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Thomas Jay Ryan, David Cross, Jane Adams, Deirdre O’Connell,  Gerry Robert Byrne, Ryan Whitney, Debbon Ayer, Amir Ali Said, Brian Price, Paul Litowsky, Josh Flitter, Lola Daehler and Lauren Adler.

Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman.

Directed by Michel Gondry.

Distributed by Focus Features.  108 minutes.  Rated R.

One thing you can’t accuse a Charlie Kaufman film of is being predictable.  The screenwriter is putting together the greatest mind-fuck of a career in modern cinema.  I don’t know if anyone else in Hollywood could even come up with the ideas behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but I do know that no one else could bring his peculiarly Dali-esque puzzle box quality to popular moviemaking. 

It is not a coincidence that even though none of his films were huge moneymakers, some of the biggest names in Hollywood are lining up to work with him.  John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Tim Robbins, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, George Clooney, Julia Roberts… all of these stars and more have wrapped their talents around Kaufman’s warped world-view.

His latest film continues the star-studded tradition, bagging Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as the stars and such top-of-the-liners as Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson and Elijah Wood in glorified supporting roles. 

Now, if you have read many of my other reviews in this section, then you know that I am no fan of Jim Carrey.  In fact, the only movie in which I have ever been impressed by his acting work (one may say impersonation) was in his uneven Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon.  (And don’t even try to tell me about The Truman Show, it was a good enough film but Carrey’s constant mugging undermined all the fine work everyone else was doing.)

Well, I have to give props, Carrey is spectacular here.  His character of Joel Barish is a wonderfully complex, introverted, disappointed, angry man.  Carrey’s wilder tendencies are kept in check (no talking with his butt) and because of this he is able to create a layered performance of wonderful subtlety.  One of the best parts of Carrey’s portrayal is the fact that he allows Winslet to be the funny one.  Her character is the more flamboyant one, so it is only natural that she be the one who demands the attention.  Winslet is also surprisingly up to the task, she is best known for deep drama and she shows quite a flair for humor.

It would fill a book to try to explain the plot of Eternal Sunshine, so instead I will give you a thumbnail sketch and allow you to experience the peculiar (but in a good way) particulars of this fractured fairytale yourself.

Carrey is Joel Barish, a quiet, repressed middle management exec whose life was a boring rut until he meets Clementine (Kate Winslet), a beautiful but wacky (different color hair almost weekly) commitment-phobic woman who brings a passion and joie de vivre to Joel’s life that he has never experienced. 

Unfortunately, relationships with passionate people can be combustible, and after they break up in a spectacularly ugly fashion Joel can’t decide whether he wants to try again.  The decision is made for him when he runs into Clementine and she acts as if they never met before.  He finds out that she went to a special doctor to have his memory surgically eliminated.

It is a fascinating idea, although maybe not quite as original as everyone says.  Former Seinfeld scribe Peter Mehlman had come up with the idea of a doctor who specializes in removing bad recollections in a 1999 episode (called “Memories of Me”) of his brilliant, short-lived, and now sadly mostly forgotten sitcom It’s Like, You Know…  Now I have no idea whether Charlie Kaufman saw that episode or it was just a matter of brilliant minds thinking alike.  I will say though, he takes the germ of a good idea and expands on the concept in directions that Mehlman never even touched on.

Most of the film takes place in Joel’s mind, when he decides in anger to erase Clementine from his brain.  However, as the procedure is being done, he has second thoughts, and must spend much of the rest of the movie dashing through the rooms of his psyche trying to hide his recollections of his ex-lover to keep them away from the invasive procedure.

This film captures the dream state better than most any film ever made.  It is also surprisingly clear-eyed on the little ways that things which make you love someone can just as easily lead you to despise them.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a movie that you’ll probably have to watch two or three times to truly appreciate the deep and twisted map of the story.  There are no easy answers in this plot.  Just like in real life.  (3/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: January 8, 2005.

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