Monday, July 19, 2010

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004)

Starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet and Elijah Wood
Written by Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry
Directed by Michel Gondry

I feel like every time I watch a Jim Carrey movie that's not "Ace Ventura," I'm on the defensive.  This is not to say that Carrey is incapable of dramatic performances, but that even when he is in the midst of a fine, serious character portrayal, he can't resist those little manic twitches and bizarre, contortionist facial expressions of his.  So when I sat down to watch "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," I found myself immediately in that frame of mind, without even really realizing it.

I think I sort of realized it about two thirds of the way through the movie when, and I can't recall the specific scene, Carrey contorts his face in a bizarre fashion for only an instant, which tore me right out of the film. 

Still, Carrey mostly succeeds as Joel, a schlub of a man whose boring life gets a shot in the arm when he meets Clementine (Kate Winslet).  They eventually begin to date, and form a deep and complex relationship.  Ultimately, however, this relationship self-destructs as each of their particular inadequacies build up over time.  Joel learns that after their breakup, Clementine has opted for a strange scientific procedure to erase her memories of their relationship.  Despondent, since he found out whilst trying to win her back, he decides to undergo the same procedure. 

While sleeping, three employees of Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) named Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Mary (Kirstin Dunst) enter Joel's home to perform the procedure.  Joel is sedated and hooked up to a machine.  Since the procedure is mostly automatic, Stan and Mary partake in various drugs and alcohol.  Patrick, meanwhile, it turns out is Clementine's new man.  He's been using Joel's memories to win her over.  Clementine calls Patrick while he's at Joel's and takes off to go meet her.

This is all the setup, however.  The guts of the film take place within Joel's memories as they're being erased.  We're taken in a trippy, surrealistic, non-linear maze of memory and emotion.  This is where the relationship between Joel and Clem is revealed and explored in sequence after sequence that zip along at almost breakneck pace.  Director Gondry uses a variety of special effects, lighting, makeup and editing tricks to make this all come to life and the results are really rather excellent, at times cool, at times utterly disturbing, and at times almost too subtle to notice. 

The relationship between Joel and Clem is pretty intense, and the film avoids any kind of cliched romantic Hollywood style.  These are simply two people who felt an attraction, came together, and then couldn't deal with the fact that their relationship (while intense) is also incredibly fragile.  They do indeed love each other, but they can't get over certain things they dislike about the other.  Clem feels that Joel is boring and won't communicate with her while Joel feels that Clem can be irresponsible and moody. 

But once Joel realizes, mid-procedure, that he doesn't actually want to forget Clem, despite his broken heart, things get even more interesting.  He begins to fight back against the procedure while still sedated in his own mind, which leads to some really wild imagery and fun sequences where he tries to hide Clem inside his other memories. 

Now that I'm thinking about it, this might be where Carrey pulled me out.  In a scene where he's portraying himself as a four year old, he can't resist playing an Ace Ventura four-year-old instead of just a four-year-old.  He recovers quickly enough, but this one scene sort of made me groan.  It's the closest the film comes to trying anything like broad comedy, and it doesn't particularly work.  The critic blurb calls the movie a "quirky comedy", but I wouldn't have called it that, not in a million years.  There are some funny moments, I suppose, but mostly I'd call this a surrealist drama. 

Probably the only thing that doesn't work in the film is the revelations regarding Mary and Dr. Mierzwiak.  They exist for a reason, and that reason fuels the ultimate resolution of the film, but they also come out of nowhere just for the third act.  Patrick's attempted seduction of Clem using Joel's things and ideas could use some more exploration, as well.  Still, the core of the film takes place in Joel's mind, so everything else feels a little slight.  I think the movie could have used another ten minutes to really flesh out those other storylines properly.

I have to mention that Kate Winslet is hot as hell in this movie.  She's also a spectacular actress, perfectly nailing the mercurial Clem.  It's easy to see how she might be almost any guy's girl of their dreams; gorgeous, smart, funny, outgoing... but that can turn on a dime.  She's dangerous, emotionally, and Winslet sells that perfectly.  A key line where she warns Joel about this is delivered with absolute conviction. 

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is a fine drama with a ton of really intriguing dream imagery to sift through.  Once you put together the non-linear narrative, the whole endeavor is quite satisfying.  If only some of the subplots had a bit more meat to them, this would be a real winner instead of just a very good film.