Favorite Movies A-Z: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Jim Carrey first made his bones by being an insanely frenetic, rubber-faced comic. There seemed no limit to the lengths of silliness he would explore in search of laughs. But the man isn’t without intelligence and, more to the point, an inclination for introspection. This has led to him later in his career appearing more and more frequently in films that are far less comic and considerably more serious in tone than those that really launched his career.

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind he plays Joel, an introverted, timid loner who appears to be prey to melancholy. As the film opens he has spontaneously blown off going to work on Valentine’s Day and instead visits the beach at Montauk. This despite the season and weather being unsuited for going to the beach and for no obvious reason he can articulate beyond desiring to do something different. As he waits for a train to return to the city, he encounters a young woman on the platform and then on the train named Clementine (Kate Winslet).

Clementine, in this first meeting, appears to be everything that he is not, at least superficially. She is gregarious and extroverted, her hair is dyed a bright blue, she has no compunctions about invading his personal space and initiating conversation despite his obvious reluctance. Where Joel is reticent, she is outspoken, and where he is hesitant she is bold. Despite (because of?) their differences, they hit it off and we see the very beginnings of what may burgeon into a romantic relationship. It is then the movie gives us title cards and shifts the time by a year or a little more to show us Joel at the cusp of another Valentine’s Day weeping and lamenting over the dissolution of his relationship with Clementine.

The movie takes a odd twist; not quite SF, maybe, but perhaps magical realism. Joel’s grief over losing Clementine is compounded by learning that she has engaged the services of Lacuna, Inc. This company is a kind of outpatient-ish medical service that offers to excise unwanted memories from your mind. Clementine has had all trace of her knowing Joel removed as a way of moving on from her breakup. (The world’s attitude towards the procedure is not perhaps dissimilar to modern attitudes towards Lasik or liposuction.) Joel, hurt and upset already, is further devastated and impulsively chooses to respond in kind and commissions them to remove Clementine from his memories.

Much of the rest of the movie is composed of Joel, asleep, reliving his memories of his relationship with Clementine one last time as they are stripped from his mind. This experience quickly takes on a nightmarish quality as Joel realizes that many, if not the vast majority, of his memories of her are actually happy, cherished moments that he regrets losing. He begins to struggle mentally to wake up from his anaesthetized state or to find a way to preserve some small remembrance of Clementine and their happiness.

Alongside our leading pair, there are a couple subplots involving the supervising physician (played by Tom Wilkinson), the techs who handle most of the actual work (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood), and the office receptionist (Kirsten Dunst). Eventually they all tie together and end the movie in a bit of a surprising way, but I think it’s certainly possible to enjoy this film as much or more the second or even third time around despite knowing the conclusion.

The movie has excellent performances by all the actors, no doubt, and in particular by Carrey. What truly elevates the film, however, is the plot and its provocative path and ideas. What raises it above a run-of-the-mill romantic melodrama is not the fantastic elements, but the human questions flowing from the wreckage of a relationship that the film addresses. And while it certainly has a point of view for which it argues, my sense at the end was that the filmmakers were not so didactic as to be trying to not leave space for disagreement. Rather, I am left with a sense that their implicit conclusion is “That’s what we think. What about you?” The conclusion, the entire film really, is an invitation to thought and conversation.

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