Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Posted by: Mark McLeod  //  March 19, 2004 @ 11:59am

Filed under: Movie Reviews 

Focus Features is a relatively young distributor and is the art-house division of Universal Pictures. In their short existence, they have distributed an amazingly high number of excellent motion pictures. In the last year alone they were the studio behind multiple Oscar nominee Lost in Translation and the film that ended up as my favorite of 2003, 21 Grams. Other films to be released under the banner include 8 Femmes, The Pianist, and the excellent documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture. Now, with the release of the Charlie Kaufman-penned, Michel Gondry-directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Focus has yet another gem of a film in a time where mediocrity at the multiplex is the norm.

Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) is a bit of a loner. He's never really been all that happy with his job or his life until a chance meeting with Clementine (Kate Winslet). Although he is already in a relationship, he hits it off with the young woman and before you know it the two are inseparable. The two are the complete opposite and as often happens in those types of relationships, she breaks it off for no apparent reason. Joel is heartbroken, but the real shock comes when he learns that she has decided to erase him from her mind completely, something that is possible through Lacuna Inc., who under the leadership of Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his team of technicians (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) have developed a technique that allows people to systematically remove any and all memories they've had of a certain person in just one night. Also working at the facility as a receptionist with a crush on the doctor is Mary (Kirsten Dunst). Once Joel discovers Lacuna, he sets up a meeting and arranges for the procedure. However, things don't go exactly as planned and Joel discovers that he'd prefer to remain in misery than lose her completely.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of those rare films that's better left unexplained until you're sitting in the theater experiencing it. Although the paragraph immediately preceding this one talks about the story of the film, it does so at only its most basic level. I for one had very little knowledge of the film before the screening, and as it unspooled minute after minute, I was taken on a fun and complex journey through the character of Joel and how his mind works. The film, which is of course written by acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, best known for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, two films that defied common reasoning and Hollywood cliches. Eternal Sunshine is one of the most mind-bending yet oddly accessible screenplays in recent memory. Bringing Kaufman's unique vision to the screen is Michel Gondry, also responsible for Human Nature, the only Kaufman screenplay so far to receive almost universally negative criticism from film critics. Gondry, who is an acclaimed music video director, has taken careful care in weaving together a film that starts at the end, begins in the middle, and twists and turns through the mind of a down and out loser.

Charlie Kaufman is a writer that is decidedly out there and despite his non-mainstream work, it's almost amazing that no studio executives have gone in and butchered his work by having rewrites done by less qualified screenwriters. Being John Malkovich was quirky and offbeat, Adaptation, which started off as a simple book adaptation, turned into something that even I still can't quite describe, and now Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind takes an almost science-fiction-type concept of memory wiping and spins it into what can be seen as a twisted and yet sweet and touching romance. In some ways, despite the unique structure and visual style employed by Michel Gondry, this is his most accessible and mainstream story yet. That said, this is far from your cookie cutter predictable romantic drama or comedy.

Michel Gondry is an up-and-coming feature film director best known for his work on a number of ground-breaking music videos for artists like The White Stripes, Foo Fighters, Radiohead, and Kylie Minogue. His latest videos include "Fell in Love with a Girl" for the White Stripes and Stererogram's "Walkie Talkie Man". Arguably one of the most creative visual presences in modern cinema, he has brought his vision to the screen in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Gondry uses a minimalistic approach in terms of using low-tech techniques as opposed to a lot of mind blowing computer-generated imagery. Along with acclaimed indie cinematographer Ellen Kuras, he gives the film a very realistic feel, yet something about it sets it apart. Improving tremendously from his first effort, he also shows a good command over the actors, enabling them to give layered and unique performances entirely different from what audiences may expect. Gondry, along with Kaufman, is going to be someone to watch in the years to come.

Jim Carrey has been long trying to break free of his label as a purely slapstick, dumb comedy type of actor. Although he did well in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, his performance in Eternal Sunshine is one of his best yet. Carrey transforms himself in Joel, so much so in fact that at times I was completely unaware that it was him. Carrey, who last impressed me in Man on the Moon, has once again shown that he is a versatile comedic performer who can, if the need arises and given a strong script, can handle drama just as well. Equally impressive is Kate Winslet in her limited scenes as Clementine. Winslet is playing against type here, as she often appears in British dramas or more serious-type roles. Winslet lets things down and plays a woman who's about as sketchy and insecure as you can get. Never sure what to do, she constantly makes impulsive decisions that seem right at the time but have lasting effects that make them all wrong. Also appearing in his first post-Frodo role is Elijah Wood, who plays one of the bumbling Lacuna technicians. The omnipresent Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst round out the Lacuna Inc. staff. Tom Wilkinson from In the Bedroom also gives another strong performance, and David Cross only appears in one major scene but has a memorable line that's not to be missed.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a unique telling of a classic tale. It's a love story and yet it's not a love story. Nothing is as it seems and after a thrilling hour and 45 minute rollercoaster ride through the mind of Joel Barish, I simply wanted more. Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman have done the near impossible and created a film that is not only moving, but interesting and more different than anything I've seen before. Utilizing a science fiction concept that's been done many times before (the memory wipe) for both comedic and action purposes, they've applied its simple nature to a story about love and desire and the ability to be happy. Featuring stunningly creative visual choices, an interesting narrative approach that's neither linear nor non-linear, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the best films to come out so far this calender year. Although its release was pushed back, it's clear that was to allow further tweaks to the editing of the film (a process which took over a year to complete). Everyone can relate to wanting to erase someone completely from their mind. I know that as I sat down, I wished that I could have that done to at least one person who's interfered with my life. Out there and yet decidedly accessible, Kaufman, Carrey, Gondry, and crew have created yet another film to be proud of.

Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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