DVD Review of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/18/05


  Interestingly, as the film scripts of Charlie Kaufman have gotten praised through the roof over the last several years, with comparisons ranging to Herman Mankiewicz, Robert Towne, Paul Schrader, and Paddy Chayefsky- at least in terms of recognizability, most writers I have known have been far less impressed with his solipsistically obsessed screenplays than the general public.

  I think that is because that any reader of fiction or poetry in the last 40 or so years has been so inundated with puerile post-modernism that self-referential tautologies fail to impress. This is the fourth CK-scripted film I’ve seen and easily the best film was that he adapted from an outside source- the film of Chuck Barris’s autobiography Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind- directed by George Clooney. That’s because, given the source, CK was forced to stay on track and not veer back into his own ego like the Titanic to the-     You get what I mean. His first filmed screenplay, Being John Malkovich, was a cute humorous fable- not too deep, nor too troubling. His second scripted film, Adaptation, was merely a banal recapitulation of themes laid out in the first film, yet with the added baggage of destroying a potentially interesting film with a last third larded with the neuroses of writer’s block raised to epopee. No, not really, but the attempt was embarrassing. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind explores similar areas of memory and mind far better, although the film has some notable flaws. I grade it as a 75 out of 100- good, but nowhere near the great rankings many critics bestowed upon it.

  I thought immediately of other films that drew upon similar themes- Woody Allen’s underrated 1993 comedy Manhattan Murder Mystery, Memento, The Salton Sea, Total Recall, Vanilla Sky, as well as many old Twilight Zone episodes. The good in the film is the very idea that memory can be effectively erased, yet that may not prevent the near-inevitable from happening. The bad is that the film never really knows where it’s going, plus it relies on very stale ideas of what dream and memory are- or at least how they’ve been portrayed in past cinematic efforts.

  As per usual, the mind is shown as an M.C. Escher like maze, and the film ends with betrayals and the hope for future. The film opens with a day when a couple named Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) meet and fall in love. Nearly twenty minutes into this exposition the credits roll and we are thrust back before that day, as it is slowly revealed that Joel and Clem were in love before, and that Clem had her memories of Joel erased by going to Lacuna, Inc., where Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) presides. His office is staffed by sexy young nurse Mary (Kirsten Dunst), and his two assistants Stan and Patrick (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood)- the former being Mary’s beau.

  Joel opts to undergo the same procedure in retaliation against Clem, and the night he does things go wrong. First, Patrick has schemed to unethically woo Clem, after erasing Joel from her mind. Then, Stan cannot counter Joel’s unconscious resistance to retain his memories of Clem, after recalling why he first fell in love with her. Much of the filmic pyrotechnics are nothing new. Things appear and disappear, nonsense occurs, etc. Slowly but surely Joel’s memories are erased, after Stan calls Howard to help him. This is when it is revealed that Howard and Mary had an affair and Howard erased Mary’s memory of it, yet even with the memories erased she again falls for Howard’s intellect, an augur of Joel and Clem’s future.

  She then leaves the company and passes out information to Howard’s patients detailing what they lost, as vengeance. After Joel and Clem’s second ‘first day’ together plays for the viewer a second time they receive Mary’s packages and have to deal with the consequences. The film ends ambiguously.

  Carrey gives a good performance- much in line with similar films in his oeuvre- such as The Majestic and The Truman Show, while Winslet shines, forever removing the stigma of having starred in the Titanic. Her American accent is convincing and the two make an interesting pair. The film would have been better served with less special effects- such as the standard remembered characters with no face, and less of the unneeded digressions. While it’s nice to see the comely Mary frolic in her underwear with Stan, it serves no purpose than to show that both are young, vapid slackers. Even worse is Patrick’s pursuit of Clem. It just does not add anything, and detracts by wasting screentime that would better have been served by exploring more of what connected Joel and Clem, other than both being oddballs.

  This is where CK always fails. His scripts lack that adult ability to convey the complexities of human emotions, and his characters descend into being mere gimmicks. Instead, he falls back on more effects and loop-de-loops. Director Michel Gondry does little to mold the script toward a more serious exploration of the recalled and the real. I kept thinking back to the 1979 PBS adaptation of Ursula LeGuin’s The Lathe Of Heaven and how that film achieved far more with far less special effects. Granted, that was ‘big concept’ sci fi, and this is not, but the ideas alone made up for the filmic lack. Here, the ideas are the most important, they just are not much.

  For example, instead of all the scenes where things morph and disappear, the most affecting scene is a late one where Clem and Joel recall their first night at a deserted beachhouse, and we see the sea slowly intrude on the house. This is far more effective than any other effects-based scene in the film because it resonates deeply, even were it merely described to a viewer, or read in a book. There are other niggling inconsistencies- such as the import of Patrick’s phone call to Clem, while Joel is unconscious, yet that somehow spurring him to want to save his memories- is it merely jealousy that causes him to react?, as well as the fact that Mary’s packages to expose Howard’s deeds occur very swiftly in the time frame of the film- less than a single day.

  The film gets its title from a line from an Alexander Pope poem, and this seems a bit emblemic of the film’s pretentiousness- as well the fact that the film does not roll its opening credits until eighteen minutes into the film.

  As for the DVD features there is nothing of any insight in the featurettes, but the film commentary is among the worst I’ve ever experienced on film. Neither Gondry nor CK have anything of note to add about the film. It’s as if CK has no depth. His comments are too often monosyllabic. Gondry is even worse- his vapidity all the worse for his horrid French accent. Literally, there’s a third of his commentary that the viewer is scratching their head over what is being said.

  However, this is still the best CK film based on his original script. The problem is that his ‘original’ scripts are all mere slight tangents on the same tired theme. Too bad, because a better, more original screenwriter would have laid the template for a truly great film, not just a muddling repeat viewing of a maculate mind unlighted.


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