Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind": review

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," a 2004 film starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet (whose American accent has improved since her earlier roles), is the story of a man who goes to a company called Lacuna to have specific memories erased: those of his girlfriend. Part "Being John Malkovich," part "Memento," the movie starts in medias res-- but without us immediately realizing this fact until the plot has begun to thicken. Jim Carrey is Joel-- quiet, bookish, introverted, and lonely. He meets Clementine (Winslet)-- free-spirited, impulsive, kooky, and temperamental. Joel falls in love, then falls out of love, and finally goes to Lacuna to have his memories of Clementine erased. Clementine does the same. In fact, it seems that she has done this first. But as Joel's erasure is in process, he experiences regret and his mind rebels. Much of the movie is devoted to Joel's internal struggle to resist his memory-erasure.

I was worried, at first, that this was going to be some sort of science-fiction version of "The Accidental Tourist," a movie I couldn't stand (for a concurring opinion, read Steve Honeywell's review here). The formulaic elements were certainly in place: the repressed nerd, the irrepressible sprite, both wounded and looking for companionship. But my fears proved groundless; instead, the movie posed a different problem.

You see, despite its complex plot, "Eternal Sunshine" is essentially making a very simple point, which is brought home to us during a "punchline" scene near the end of the story.

Let me build up to it: Joel and Clementine both discover the truth about the erasures (ideally, the procedure leaves no memory-traces of itself) when they are sent their own confidential files by a disgruntled Lacuna employee (played by Kirsten Dunst). The files include recordings of the pre-erasure interviews in which the patients explain why they want the procedure done. Joel is in the car with Clementine when she pops in her tape out of curiosity. He listens with horror as Clementine tells the doctor why she wants her erasure: Joel is boring, feckless, annoying, and worse. Her tone is seething with disdain. Furious at this revelation, Joel kicks Clementine out of the car. Later on, Clementine tracks Joel down at his apartment, where she hears Joel's own pre-erasure description of Clementine, which proves to be equally vitriolic. Clementine stomps out, but Joel chases her into the hallway and begs her to stay.

Here, then, is the movie's point: despite knowing what they know about each other, Joel and Clementine elect to start all over, to try again. Because that's what love is, right? To love someone is to accept him or her, warts and all.

Did we need an entire movie to understand this point? I don't think so.

Part of me feels gypped, as if I'd listened to an hour-long joke only to hear the world's lamest punchline. The movie was written by Charlie Kaufman, the scripter who gave us "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" (both of which I thought were excellent). Kaufman is great at weaving, in a Baudrillardesque way, between layers of simulacra and simulation: where, exactly, is reality? What's it like to be inside someone's head? What sort of murky, fucked-up, ever-changing landscape is human interiority? Kaufman never makes it easy for us to know. However, after watching "Eternal Sunshine" and comparing it to his other films, I conclude that Kaufman is at his best only as long as he remains philosophical. As much as he likes to meditate on love, I don't think love is really his thing. The movie's ending struck me as disappointingly trite, as if all that intricate hand-waving ultimately meant something mundane. Or was that the point?

I don't think it was. There could have been something more-- a commentary about the stubborn resiliency of human nature, about how we find ourselves drawn to the same people, again and again, even when a cosmic "reset" button has been pushed. Joel and Clementine have a history (and the same turns out to be true for a few other minor characters in the story); it's almost as if they're destined to be together, despite whatever little hell they create for each other. Love makes the beloved hard to forget. Life and our inner natures push us insistently in the same direction, either until we get it right or until we crash and burn.

So, yes: I'm disappointed at how simple this film's basic message is. I don't mind simple messages coming from simple-hearted films, but from Kaufman I expect layering, complexity, and ambiguity. No central message should be this easy to discern. I'm still wrestling with whatever the hell "Being John Malkovich" is supposed to be saying. "Eternal Sunshine" is, by contrast, an absurdly easy puzzle to solve.

It didn't help that Clementine wasn't particularly likeable. I'm a fan of Kate Winslet's acting, but her character was completely unappealing to me. Jim Carrey did a decent job with his role, but perhaps because I think of him first and foremost as a comic actor, I found his crying jags in the film unintentionally funny. Come to think of it, his character, Joel, wasn't all that likeable, either. But Joel at least had the virtue of not being either selfish or self-destructive. He was timid; some might even call Joel a coward. But he wasn't harming anyone. Clementine, despite her virtues, struck me as the principal source of all the toxicity.

What it really comes down to is: would I watch this movie again? And the answer is: no, I wouldn't. It had its good points, and it certainly had potential on the cerebral level, but it was neither as fun nor as provocative as either "Being John Malkovich" or "Adaptation."


1 comment:

John said...

Oddly enough, I thought of this movie today when I saw a link on Instapundit about "the forgetting pill" (which as it turns out isn't a pill at all).

Anyway, I enjoyed the movie myself. Truth be told, I'm inclined to like just about anything that doesn't involve comic book characters, vampires, and machines that transform.

I'm actually planning on seeing a movie here in Korea this weekend (if I can find it playing nearby), and I almost never go to the theater anymore. Men of Valor is something I want to see, if only because it's been making liberal heads explode nationwide!