'Eternal Sunshine' not only spotless, but also flawless

by John Kim | 3/31/04 5:00am

What does it mean to love, really? If one were to believe Hollywood, love would be defined by airport meetings -- cute, passionate embraces, and dramatic declarations of eternal devotion as a James Horner score swells in the background. There is nothing wrong with unabashed romance in the movies, of course, but if the world were to follow the Hollywood definition of love, then only a select, lucky few would ever experience it.

The truth is that people fall in and out of love all the time, sometimes too easily; it's just that these moments are seldom "grand" enough to warrant the Hollywood treatment. Yet in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman choose to examine these smaller moments, these fragments in time that seem inconsequential as they are being experienced but are in fact vital facets of our very beings. There are ups, there are downs and there are occasions that are downright inexplicable, but it is the willingness to take all these alike that constitute what love actually is.

When the film commences, timid Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) has just broken up with his longtime girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), and in return, impulsive Clementine chooses to undergo a memory erasure procedure invented by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) in order to remove all vestiges of Joel from her life.

Hurt by this, Joel decides to retaliate by requesting the same procedure for himself. Yet his memories of Clementine don't disappear more than they gradually fade away, and as Joel relives these past events one by one, he begins to realize that this is not what he wants after all.

Charlie Kaufman, of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" fame, has become one of the hottest screenwriters in the business simply by delving into the jungle that is human thought. Although known for his twisty narratives and his surreal imagery (and there is plenty of that in "Sunshine"), his movies are actually deceptively straightforward, and those who dismiss this film as convoluted just weren't making the effort in the first place.

The film does trick us as to the direction in which it intends to go. Lab receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst) quotes Nietzsche at one point, saying, "Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better of their blunders," and it initially seems that Kaufman truly believes this. He shows us these "blunders" of love -- the petty bickering, the asinine complaints, the things said in anger and not really meant -- and appears to ask, "Why bother?"

"Sunshine" then goes about using the rest of its running time to answer that question. Forget the woefully inaccurate trailer, with images of Elijah Wood engaging in tomfoolery and Kirsten Dunst dancing in her underwear, because "Sunshine" is one of the most fiercely romantic movies to ever be seen. The portrayal of love as a complete experience, both good and bad, has been done before, but with visionaries Gondry and Kaufman in charge, it all feels fresh anyway.

The cast is predictably excellent. Dunst plays the tragic arc of her character perfectly, and Wood is disturbingly believable as a sleazebag. Meanwhile, Kate Winslet, like Emily Watson in "Punch-Drunk Love," infuses her character with a vulnerability that keeps her from being a one-dimensional angelic figure.

However, the big story here is Jim Carrey, who in his best performance ever curbs his more manic tendencies while still retaining the unique presence that only he can offer. While his previous attempts at drama were admirable, even his finer efforts always had the aura of show, and never did I think, "Only Jim Carrey could have played this role." Yet here, we finally have what was thought impossible: a role tailor-made for Carrey that does not require him to make faces with his ass.

"Sunshine" is another in a recent spate of romances that turn the typical love story on its head, providing the audience with an experience that is far more invigorating than any Julia Roberts monologue could hope to be. End the movie ten minutes earlier, and you may just have a flawless film. As it is, with 2004 not even at its one-third mark, it is hard to foresee a better film coming out this year.