The Persistence of Memory


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, March 29, 2004


Ever since screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's 1999 art-house hit "Being John Malkovich," major stars willing to forego their usual $20 million paycheck have turned to him for some elitist fun. George Clooney directed Kaufman's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," while Nicolas Cage was brilliant playing both the neurotic Kaufman and his blissful twin brother Donald in the hilarious "Adaptation."

Despite his popularity among celebrities, critics frequently charge that the ingenious Kaufman lacks true emotions. So, he dims the wit wattage in his new romantic drama "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (debuting fairly widely on March 19), even more than, say, Tom Stoppard did in his reputation-assuring "The Real Thing." "Eternal Sunshine" doesn't scintillate like "Adaptation," but it possesses mature depths.

Kaufman's new sobriety suited the notoriously Oscar-hungry comedy king Jim Carrey. As wonderful as Carrey is in mainstream laughers like "Bruce Almighty," he knows the Academy doesn't much respect funny performances, as we just saw with the droll Bill Murray and the flamboyant Johnny Depp losing the Best Actor award to Sean Penn and his "Mystic River" emote-a-thon.

Carrey's lust for official recognition probably stems from his inferiority complex over his lack of education (he dropped out of high school to tell jokes for a living). More generally, stand-up comics like Carrey tend to be self-loathing and depressive. Even the exception that proves this rule, that bulletproof superman Bob Hope, made a running joke out of his pain at being repeatedly rejected by the Oscar voters.

Unfortunately for Carrey's dramatic ambitions, his comic competitive advantage originates is his remarkable muscle tone: his facial muscles can simply power their way from one exaggerated expression to another as fast as anyone in movie history. Carrey's attempt to harness his antic visage to Academy-style social issue drama hit rock bottom with 2001's "The Majestic." Playing a blacklisted screenwriter in order to pander to Academy members' belief that the Hollywood Red Scare was the worst thing that ever happened in American history, Carrey gave a performance restrained to the point of catatonia.

In "Eternal Sunshine," however, he has largely solved his acting problems. He portrays a cautious introvert, but this time allows his character's sorrows to fully show appealingly on his expressive face. Three time Oscar nominee Kate Winslet plays (in her words) "the Jim Carrey part" as his flighty, free-spirit girlfriend with hair dyed tangerine and blue.

Kaufman found his florid title in Alexander Pope's poem "Eloisa to Abelard." The famous medieval mistress, now cloistered in a nunnery, struggles with the anguish and joy of her memories of Abelard: "Of all affliction taught a lover yet / 'Tis sure the hardest science to forget!" In Kaufman's plot, Lacuna Inc. has invented an electronic brain zapper that erases recollections of lost loves. Trying to break up with Carrey painlessly, Winslet has Lacuna Inc. expunge all her memories of him. He retaliates in kind. But once Lacuna's semi-competent technicians obliterate the sedated Carrey's memories of their ugly split, he falls in love with her again. The movie becomes a battle within his head as he fights to keep his remembrances of Winslet.

In summary, "Eternal Sunshine" sounds like one of those sci-fi social protest films made from Philip K. Dick stories, such as "Total Recall" or "Minority Report." Hollywood types adore making a Dick flick because it provides the righteous rush of speaking truth to power combined with the comforting security of knowing that the sinister and omnipotent corporate or governmental bureaucracy that you're bravely denouncing doesn't, technically, exist.

Smartly, Kaufman and "Eternal Sunshine's" director Michel Gondry, creator of Bjork's music videos, decided that Lacuna would instead be an unprepossessing small business renting a dingy office suite in the Outer Boroughs and staffed by dope-smoking lumpengeeks more concerned with their own subplots than their duties. Kaufman doesn't have to pound home the message that it's really not a good idea to obliterate your most intimate memories because it's clear that sensible folks stay clear. Lacuna barely limps along, surviving on the Christmas and St. Valentine's Day rushes. Carrey asks the doctor if there's any chance of brain damage. "Well, technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage," he replies in one of the film's few amusing lines.

"Eternal Sunshine" is a little too downbeat to be terribly enjoyable to watch. Yet, after you go home and think about it, you realize that Kaufman's craftsmanship is approaching Stoppard's level of mastery because his complex and initially puzzling script holds up superbly.

R (for language, some drug use and sexual content)

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