Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Review)

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[This is one of my earliest film reviews, originally published in April 2004 for the defunct University of Washington publication ‘Right Turn’. This is actually probably the first and only time that I had a hard deadline for a print publication, at least where my contribution could not be easily replaced. At the time the paper was on a bi-weekly schedule (more or less), which meant that we were spending LONG weekends trying to put together each issue. At around midnight the day before publication we realized we were missing a fair amount of content. I worked on this film review, while others worked on commentary pieces or new items, etc.

The biggest challenge at the time, hard to imagine today, was finding the actual information necessary to write the article. We had dial-up internet and each fact or name I had to find was taking several minutes at a time. I believe the original print version, for example, probably misspelled Jim Carrey’s name. We take it for granted how easy it is to find information today, but easy access to information is really just a very recent phenomenon.

I started writing at around midnight I remember, trying to drown out the noise from my fellow writers and editors, then was maybe done by around 2:00 am. It’s not a huge accomplishment, I confess, but I remember it fondly as a “newsroom”-like experience. And, although I feel I’m a much stronger writer today, I enjoy looking back at this review and remembering my feelings at the time. Below is the original article, with possibly a few minor spelling or grammar corrections.]

Writer Charlie Kaufman seems to have a hard time dealing with reality. His newest film is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. As in Kaufman’s earlier films, the sleeper hits Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, a similar formula was used to create disjointed masterpieces of existential confusion and circular logic.

Eternal Sunshine is a tale of love gone sour. Its central premise is if you could erase a particularly painful relationship, would you choose to do it, or would you choose to live with your mistakes and remember the good times along with the bad? In the opening scene we meet Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), a couple with virtually nothing in common. Joel is boring and conservative, while Clementine is compulsive and unpredictable. The two begin dating and are presumably happy before everything starts to unravel, Joel having a difficult time expressing his emotions and Clementine becoming promiscuous and a lush.

They break up, although that event is never actually played out on film. One day Joel accidentally receives a notice in the mail indicating that Clementine has paid to have her memory erased so that she will not be forced to remember him. He visits her at work and discovers that she really does have no memory of him and is now dating someone new. The pain of this realization leads Joel to have Clementine erased from his memory by the same firm, whose “doctor” claims that effects of memory erasure are “roughly equivalent to a night of hard drinking.”

Joel is sedated in his home by technicians from the firm and his entire memory of Clementine is to be expunged in a single night, leaving Joel whole and complete once again. The only problem is that as memories are erased one by one, Joel discovers that he doesn’t want to forget Clementine. The rest of the movie takes place in Joel’s mind as he struggles to remember anything at all of his beloved Clementine. If this sounds complicated, you have no idea.

This movie could have been a train wreck, but thankfully not in the hands of Kaufman and director Michel Gundy. Jim Carrey shines in one of his best roles since The Truman Show. Eternal Sunshine‘s message is elegant in its simplicity. The purity of love is illogical. There are no guarantees, ever. There is almost a fatalistic quality to this film, that Joel and Clementine are irrationally committed to each other when they really have nothing in common. Joel’s struggle to keep his memory intact is a triumph of the human spirit, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a triumph in filmmaking.

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