Like 'em or hate 'em, there's one thing you can definitely say about Charlie Kaufman scripts, which is that they don't at all feel like they've been written fifty trillion times before. Or even five times before. His idea of different may not appeal to everyone, but there's little argument that the guy has his own distinctive voice.
One would think that movies about screwed-up relationships had been done as much as is truly necessary, and but for this film, they'd mostly be correct. I can honestly say, however, that I've never seen this particular story done before. As with Being John Malkovich, Kaufman employs a very science-fictiony device that he then fails to treat at all in a science-fictiony manner. After a tumultous relationship, Clementine has her memories of boyfriend Joel erased through some bizarre medical procedure, and unable to deal with the loss, Joel decides to follow suit. As the process begins, Joel begins to have second thoughts, and unwilling to let go, pursues Clementine through all the nooks and crannies of his own mind. To say more would be to ruin the film's twists and turns, so if you want to know how things play out, then see it yourself.
Jim Carrey is damn near unrecognizable in this film-the fact that he's playing a realistic human being for once is no small part of the reason why. Kate Winslet, with no trace of her accent apparent, is equally good as Clementine, a moderately messed-up young woman who has as many apparent faults as appealing qualities. Where other writers would be concerned with the technological aspects of memory erasure, Kaufman dispenses with the exposition as quickly as possible, preferring to get on with the meat of the story. This isn't about how advanced technology will affect-or, as Hollywood so often seems to think, ruin-our lives, it merely serves as a convenient device for showing the human psyche from a less-often used angle. The function of memory is a profoundly inextricable part of our selves and personalities, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about the sheer weight of the hold our memories exert upon us. While the characters ultimately arrive at their own conclusions about the advisability of deleting unpleasantries from their life experiences, the film stops short of offering up any obvious homilies about "how we shouldn't fuck with nature," even our own. It's quite possible to take from the film the lesson that people never learn from their mistakes; what the resolution will mean to the viewer will depend largely on their own personal histories.
Lest I hand all the credit to Kaufman, I must stop and give due credit to Michel Gondry's direction. The camera captures the events with a very matter-of-fact, almost documentary-esque eye, and for the most part eschews high-tech trickery for traditional, in-camera practical effects to capture the inside of Joel's memories. After all, recognizing what one values out of their own experiences doesn't require or particularly benefit from big swirling tunnels of CG light or an abundance of morphing. While an excess of imagination can be intimidating to some, who prefer their stories to play out in a more clear-cut fashion, I find it to be desperately welcome. There's plenty of "art-cinema" that tries to be as overwrought or depressing as possible without saying anything interesting, but this film isn't like that. For all of its intellectual aspirations, it's also very playful in its approach, and it manages to treat a potentially depressing piece of subject matter without being depressing.
There will be many times throughout the film when you feel like you have no idea what you're watching or where things are going, but rest assured, it all locks together perfectly clearly in the end. Perhaps it's an unavoidable consequence of discussing the fragility of memory that it requires the viewer to have a reasonably good memory of their own, but for those of us who may miss some detail the first time through, there's the miracle of repeat viewings to fill in the gaps. The fact that you'll probably want to see it multiple times is almost a miracle unto itself these days. While it's true that there are only a few basic stories that are simply retold over and over, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind proves that there are at least still some new, innovative ways in which to tell them.
-review by Matt Murray