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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

How could Iever forget you?

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Michel Gondry
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: English
Opens March 19
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Back in early 2000, as "Being John Malkovich" was fast becoming an out-of-left-field hit, its screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, gave an interview where he stated, "I don't want to get tagged as 'the guy who does the weird stuff.' "

News photo
Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

At the time, the fulfillment of that wish always struck me as being about as plausible as George W. Bush promising to be a compassionate conservative, and nothing that Kaufman has penned since has proven me wrong. There was "Human Nature," where Patricia Arquette grows fur all over her body and Tim Robbins teaches table manners to mice; "Confession," where Sam Rockwell plays a zany TV talk show host who has delusions of being a CIA spy; and "Adaptation," where Nicolas Cage plays Charlie Kaufman and his imaginary twin brother in a movie about not being able to write a screenplay. Weird stuff, and deliciously so; hopefully Kaufman doesn't feel pigeonholed so much as the ruler of his own niche.

Kaufman's latest, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," directed by Michel Gondry (an acclaimed music video director who made his feature debut with "Human Nature"), may be his weirdest flick since "Being John Malkovich." Where that film played with the idea of getting inside another person's head and sharing their perceptions, "Eternal Sunshine" takes a different tack: What would happen if someone else could get inside your head and view all your memories? While the surreal plot and crazy humor here are familiar, it's worth noting that Kaufman reveals a romantic streak that's surprisingly sentimental and not the least bit ironic. "Love hurts" is the bedrock truth on which this film is based, and no matter how outrageous or funny it gets -- and it certainly does that -- there's no escaping the undertow of melancholy.

Jim Carrey plays Joel Barish, a rather introverted and dour guy who seems emotionally crushed, having broken up with his girlfriend after a stormy year together. Critics are always going off about how Carrey's made significant departures in films like "The Truman Show" or "Majestic," but for me, there is always a point where he just can't help reverting to comedy -- the rubbery smile, the goofy body language, the manic clowning. Here, however, he resists the urge, and effectively pulls us into a character who is so very un-Carrey: shy, insecure, not very talkative. The contrast with Carrey's usual idiot glee is such that Joel seems that much more sad and withdrawn.

He's got reason to be that way; Clementine -- played by Kate Winslet with neon-colored hair and a punky attitude -- hit him like a truck. It was one of those "opposites attract" relationships where all the differences you love in your partner soon become the things that drive you to freak out. Joel was always a bit uncomfortable with Clementine's alcohol-fueled impulsiveness, but even so, nothing prepared him for the message he gets from the Lacuna clinic; it informs him that Clementine has undergone a new medical procedure that has removed all memory of Joel from her brain.

Flabbergasted, Joel meets the clinic's boss, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), and decides to reciprocate by erasing Clementine from his own neural hard drive. After purging his apartment of anything that would remind him of Clementine, Joel pops a couple of pills, and dozes off. While he sleeps, Lacuna technicians Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Mary (Kirsten Dunst) wire up Joel's head and start scanning for memories to erase, starting from the most recent and moving backward.

One of the stoned techies, it turns out, has a devious, less-than-professional interest in the procedure. Joel, sensing this, tries to wake up and call off the whole thing, but it's impossible. Desperate to hang on to the memory of his lost love, he takes the Clementine of his mind and tries to hide her in unrelated, more repressed memories, where she's not supposed to be.

Thus begins an astoundingly surreal chase movie through time and memory, with Carrey and Winslet racing from memory to memory to escape being erased forever. Gondry indulges in some haunting cinematic tricks, establishing these moments in Joel's past and erasing them. A truly virtuosic moment comes at the point when Central Station at rush hour is wiped, person by person, right before our eyes. (This trick has been glimpsed before in Gondry's music videos.) This is also where the film indulges its weird streak. The most repressed memories are, of course, the most humiliating ones, and Gondry plays these for laughs.

This sort of cutting between the real and the imaginary, the past and the present, has been taking a bit of flak lately, as certain directors choose to employ it for no apparent reason. Gondry and Kaufman, though, have honed this one to perfection. The looping structure of the film -- the opening sequence where Joel meets Clem on a beach re-appears at the end, and is itself an echo of the first time they met -- is not just "clever." Rather, it suggests that the person you love is your destiny, that given a second chance, you'd still end up with the same person. Alternately, this could be viewed as folly, that even knowing how messed-up a relationship will get, you'd still opt to give it another whirl.

"Eternal Sunshine" offers both readings, though it's more hopeful than not. As Joel reaches one of his last memories of Clementine, lying next to her on the frozen Charles River as snow falls silently at night, he pleads, "Let me keep this memory, just this one. I'm just . . . happy." Wishing for the simple, uncomplicated pleasure of falling in love, after you've gone through the picking-up-her-laundry phase of the relationship, may be folly, but it's worth holding onto.

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