Love in shadow and sun

Times Staff Writer

In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” love creeps under the door like a vapor. Wrapping its tendrils around Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), it ushers the couple into a state of blissful intoxication, before choking off their oxygen and almost doing them in. For screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry, the architects of this comic and often cruel affair of the heart, love means always having to say you’re sorry.

A worker bee with a briefcase, Joel first meets Clementine one blustery afternoon. Invited to a winter beach party by his friends Carrie and Rob (Jane Adams and David Cross, both note perfect), he notices Clementine standing at the edge of the water, staring out to sea. “How odd,” Joel muses in hushed voice-over, to be “drawn to someone’s back.” After a few introductory stammers, one thing leads to another amid much flirtatious hemming and hawing. Love blooms and then -- because life is suffering and this is, after all, a Charlie Kaufman movie -- wilts one pathetic petal at a time. Clementine grows restless, unhappy with everything that once drew her to Joel, and then one day she literally no longer recognizes either her lover or his love.

That’s what happens in “Eternal Sunshine,” if not precisely how. A patchwork of moments in time, the story actually takes off with Joel’s discovery that Clementine has erased him from her memory. Stung, he in turn sets out to wipe her from his mind, a procedure that leads him to an outfit called Lacuna Inc. and straight through the looking glass. Run by the avuncular Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) along with his chipper assistants Stan, Patrick and Mary (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst), Lacuna zaps memories as mercilessly as horseflies, leaving clients without their old tears and heartache. For satisfied customers this selective amnesia can be a blessing. For Joel, it becomes a test of his love, a rollicking journey down memory lane, the ultimate head trip.


“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (the title comes from an Alexander Pope poem) is about what goes wrong with love and why -- it’s a comic mystery by way of a romantic thriller. As played with open-heart delicacy by Carrey and especially Winslet, Joel and Clementine are two ordinary people who embark on the most extraordinary adventure a human being can take -- they fall in love. Like many of Kaufman’s characters, Joel and Clementine are more comfortable living in their heads than in the world. (He hides from the present; she runs from it.) For Kaufman, the great ongoing struggle in life, particularly for men, is the struggle to get out of our heads (or, as the case may be, out of John Malkovich’s head), to hack through our innermost jungles, our fears and obsessions in order to live in the world.

Like Kaufman’s screenplays for “Being John Malkovich” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” much of “Eternal Sunshine” takes place inside the labyrinth of consciousness. Once Joel decides to erase Clementine from his memory, he undergoes a precision wipeout. The procedure -- which involves sleeping pills, electrodes and a metal bonnet that looks like a super-deluxe colander -- takes Joel deep into his mind. As Stan busily twirls dials and Patrick tries to look helpful, Joel travels through his memories, revisiting his relationship with Clementine as if it were the scene of a crime. (Sometimes he’s the victim, sometimes the murderer.) Everything’s going according to plan when, back on planet here-and-now, a couple of antsy Lacuna assistants break out the beer and, in a joyful blast of all-too-human silliness, begin go-go dancing over Joel’s prostrated body. In Gondry and Kaufman’s first feature, “Human Nature,” a woman covered in hair falls for a man raised by an ape. Overly fussy and only sporadically funny, that film floated like a lead balloon. Gondry deserves a hefty share of the blame, but the story also underscores Kaufman’s weakness. The writer has terrifically unembarrassed imagination -- he’ a bard of humiliation. But he comes across as a guy who so dearly wants to be special that he’d rather jump off a bridge than write something like “boy meets girl.” (“Do I have an original thought in my head?” Nicolas Cage worries in “Adaptation,” drowning in writer’s flop sweat.) Kaufman’s imagination contains jolts of genius, but it has none of David Lynch’s deep, wormy mystery. Unlike Lynch’s films, which play out in the deepest shadows of consciousness, Kaufman’s stories unfold with frontal-lobe transparency.

Gifted and funny, the writer has an obvious talent for the pleasurable brainteaser. Jammed with strange incidents and abrupt U-turns, his work is so off the contemporary mainstream course that it can seem more far out than it is, which means his characters tend to get short shrift. But what’s best about “Being John Malkovich” isn’t the brain portal or the secret office-building floor; it’s the melancholic longing that ricochets between John Cusack, Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener, setting them off course. Few screenwriters working today write female characters as wonderful as Kaufman’s; he is one of the few men in the business who seems to love women more than he fears them. In “Eternal Sunshine,” both Winslet and Dunst have scenes of such unmitigated tenderness that just thinking about them can make you sigh.

If “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is an infinitely better movie than “Human Nature” and indeed one of Kaufman’s best, it isn’t because Gondry has suddenly become a talented filmmaker. (He was gifted from the start.) It’s because the hiccups and eccentricities that define a Kaufman script -- the anguished neuroses, the narrative kinks -- are firmly in the service of a touching love story, not the other way around. A memory play and a sleight of hand, “Eternal Sunshine” is more than anything else deeply sincere. Like Spike Jonze, who directed “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich,” Gondry succeeds principally by balancing Kaufman’s churning skepticism with unflinching hope. In “Eternal Sunshine,” Kaufman and Gondry rough love up, push it around, back it into a corner and mess with its head (ours too). But, finally, they give in. They bask in the sunshine.


‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

MPAA rating: R, for language, some drug use and sexual content

Times guidelines: Adult language, pot smoking; fine for mature teenagers

Jim Carrey...Joel

Kate Winslet...Clementine

Kirsten Dunst...Mary

Mark Ruffalo...Stan

Elijah Wood...Patrick

Tom Wilkinson...Dr. Howard Mierzwiak

Focus Features presents an Anonymous Content production in association with This is that, released by Focus Features. Director Michel Gondry. Writer Charlie Kaufman. Story Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Pierre Bismuth. Producers Steve Golin, Anthony Bregman. Director of photography Ellen Kuras. Production designer Dan Leigh. Editor Valdis Oskarsdottir. Music Jon Brion. Costumes Melissa Toth. Casting Jeanne McCarthy. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

In general release.