Lonely and depressed, Joel (Jim Carrey) decides to skip work one morning. Contemplating the Valentines Day, “A holiday invented by a greeting card company to make people feel like crap” — he finds himself on a train to Montauk. “I don’t know why,” he says in voiceover, “I’m not an impulsive person.” Following some “goddamn freezing” hours at the off-season beach, where he writes in his journal that is, apparently inexplicably, missing pages he doesn’t remember writing, he heads to a diner, where he spots a girl, blue-haired, orange-sweatshirted, dosing her coffee with a shot of booze.
At the train station, he sees her again. And then, on the train, she approaches. Though he imagines himself to be introverted, Joel finds himself drawn to this strange and volatile girl, Clementine (Kate Winslet). She calls him on his unkind humor, then comes on to him, quite adorably, eventually inviting him into her New York apartment stocked with Mr. Potato Heads. So far, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind looks like the sort of romantic comedy that you’ve seen before, where a pair of opposites played by movie stars resist what the rest of us all know is their inevitable connection. But then the film stops, and starts again.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is well known for conjuring conundrums; his scripts for Spike Jonze’s startlingly inventive Being John Malkovich and mostly clever Adaptation, and Michel Gondry’s first feature, the awkward Human Nature, are warped amusements laced through with wacky speculations and puzzles. That these concern the inextricable flipsidedness of honesty and deceit, or kindness and meanness (think of John Cusack’s puppeteer fixing to possess his beautiful coworker by stealing Malkovich’s body). This second collaboration with Gondry may be Kaufman’s most nimbly endearing work to date, maintaining its light touch even when the plot gets gloomy (an effect enhanced by Jon Brion’s smart score).
In this, the film aptly reflects Joel’s spastically sensible perspective. (And Carrey actually, delightfully, and surprisingly underplays Joel, letting the film’s simultaneous excess and detail propel him; it’s easily his best work as well.) There’s a reason that Joel meets up with Clem on the beach at Montauk: they’ve done it before. In fact, they share a difficult history, which each has had erased, under the auspices of Lacuna Inc., a company that promises selective memory loss. Devised by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), who calls the process, “technically speaking… brain damage,” it sounds crazy. (Indeed, the movie draws parallels between insanity and several other states of mind, including love, anger, and lust.) But Joel is desperate, following his discovery that Clem has had the procedure: when he goes to see her at the Barnes & Noble where she works, he mourns, “She looks at me like she doesn’t even know who I am.”
This is the film’s essential question: how can you know who anyone is? Clem and Joel initially believe they know each other, during the first giddy blush of connection. Their happier recollections show her quite overwhelming him with her rowdy passion for experience and manic lack of focus. Their first date, he exults, adopting her suggested language, is the “best fucking time of my fucking life.” In turn, he offers her something approximating constancy (imagine this, Carrey as the stable guy). They are as incompatible as can be, and yet they know one another, know they belong together.
Or so they think. Following their break-up, and his subsequent encounter with a non-remembering Clem in the bookstore, Joel complains to his friends (Jane Adams and David Cross) about her betrayal. This presents a whole other dimension to Lacuna’s mindfucking business, as friends and family need to be included in the deliberate removal of memories (and granted, this dimension opens all sorts of opportunities for screw-ups). Their efforts to support Joel speak to the ways that friends split up along with splitting couples, take sides and practice selective recall. Forgetting, in other words, is a choice, bearing responsibility, awareness, and the willingness to give up same. Just like forgiving, just like loving.
Until he’s faced with forgetting, however, Joel can’t bear to remember. And so he arrives at Howard’s office looking for payback, or peace of mind, or maybe just that fabled new beginning (a version of the “spotless mind” of Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard,” for which the film is named). Hauling hefty bags full of mementoes, which Howard uses to “map” the relationship memories to be forgotten, Joel worries briefly that he’s stepping too far (after all, the “mapping” machine resembles the big fat head-warper in Total Recall). But he fools himself into thinking that it’s a ballsy decision, as it was for Clem, who, he whines, “did it to me first,” and who, he believes, is a tougher, more independent soul (his malcontent memories include her belligerent drunkenness and his assumption that she “fucked someone”).
To show his potency, then, Joel submits, looking for what might be “the perfect end to this piece of shit story.” According to protocol, that evening he dons brand new pajamas and takes a pill so he’ll sleep through the invasion to follow. That is, he will have his brain reformatted, courtesy of Howard’s workers, Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Stan (Mark Ruffalo), equipped with a laptop and elaborate software, plus Stan’s sweet girlfriend (And Lacuna receptionist), Mary (Kirsten Dunst). As the computer chugs along, Mary digs up some beers in Joel’s fridge so she and Stan can par-tay. Her lithe naïveté and seeming devotion to Stan, so eager to please and take pleasure, begins to irk Patrick, who’s as nerdy as Stan, but also colder. And so he excuses himself for his own “date,” with Clem. Here the timing is splayed once again, as Patrick met and fixed on Clem during her own visit to Lacuna.
Clever and frankly pathetic boy, Patrick figures the most immediate way to “win” Clem is to steal Joel’s ideas — jewelry he was about to give her, memories of her favorite poems. So armed, Patrick is not the only one to use the wiping process unethically, but his abuses provide an alter-plot for Clem and Joel’s. As wrong as they can seem for one another, Patrick seems worse. It’s a clunky device, but serves insidious, ingenious purpose, toward the end of dismantling your expectations. Here Ace Ventura is the earnest lover, Frodo the scoundrel.
At the same time that Patrick’s plot is seeping into Clem’s, Joel’s brain, mid-wipe, goes off on its own tangent. At the last minute, he changes his mind (so to speak), and attempts to fight off the treatment, clinging to a happy memory of Clem that he endeavors frantically to hide in an unlikely site, inside a masturbation memory, or, when that doesn’t work, one from his childhood, which means, in one particularly ewwy version, conflating Clem with his mother.
Here the love story is revealed in reverse, such that Joel and Clem’s initial, reciprocal attraction appears a gift, for all the work of surviving the bad times. Gondry and gifted cinematographer Ellen Kuras find any number of ways to picture this other process, Joel’s pains to hold onto a memory even as it is slipping away. As he scampers through his own past, backgrounds (kitchens, hallways, beaches, Grand Central Station) literally fade out, leaving him without context, frantically leaping from one scene to another. He even solicits the advice of his memory of Clementine, which so redoubles the instances of their intimacy, their profound understanding of each other, that the split starts to seem tragic in the midst of its comedic lunacy.
As they stand in the beach house where they first meet (and where Joel first demonstrates the lack of nerve that haunts him for the duration of the movie/relationship), you see their first tender and delirious moments. You also see the house disintegrating around them as Joel’s memory is sucked from his brain (a decent metaphor, made much more dynamic in this literal incarnation). This moment comes at the end of Eternal Sunshine, so their mutual desire to make sense for one another is finally plain: this is what they know, back then. The loss of this knowledge leads them to Lacuna.
At once abstract and heartfelt, sincere and weirdly charming, Eternal Sunshine unhinges conventions of linear narrative (one event causes another) along with romantic comedy (two characters, played by movies stars, are made for each other). While some viewers have protested that Clem and Joel are “mismatched,” or an “unlikely” couple, this difficulty is precisely the point. Not obviously comported for “eternal sunshine,” they must choose not only one other, but also the selves they will be. Knowing each other, they come to know themselves.