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Man, that title sure is a mouthful.
Not that I would ever harp on the title of a film in relation to the overall quality of the finished product, but the title just sucks. Long ago, Chad wrote an article about how to title a film, and more importantly, how not to title your film. One thing he made a note to avoid were unpoetic mouthfuls, titles that just were a mess to try and get out in one breath. THE LAST TIME I COMMITTED SUICIDE, THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL AND CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN, stuff like that. This title definitely belongs in that category. I couldn't even for the life of me remember the entire title for quite some time, so I just started abbreviating it in conversation to the first two words. It's kind of ironic, actually, that the title fits into the "unpoetic mouthfuls" category, because it comes from an Alexander Pope poem quoted in the film.
But poor choices in title aside, I was looking forward to seeing ETERNAL SUNSHINE for some time. After all, this is the latest offering from writer Charlie Kaufman, who is responsible for a few of the most brilliant screenplays in the last few years: BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND. All of these films share a particular fascination with the cerebral, and do amazing things with the concept of human perceptption. It was going to take a lot for SUNSHINE to match up with these films, and it certainly went the extra mile to do it.
SUNSHINE starts to tell its tale by introducing us to Joel, played by Jim Carrey. Joel looks to be your average stuck-in-a-rut working stiff. Sure, it's probably the most overused character archetype in cinema, but there's a twist coming in this case. Joel, who states that he's not generally the spontaneous type, decides at the last minute to ditch work and hop a train to Montauk, where he laments two missing years in his journal and meets an unusual woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet.) And although Joel and Clem are practically opposites, they seem to have this strange bond that draws them together. They quickly fall into a fantastic affair, and all seems right with them.
Then, the opening credits roll. The placement of the credits, a good ten to fifteen minutes into the picture, is a nice segue into the next hour and a half worth of film. You see, the mood is about to change. It's hard to get too in depth to the plot points stored within lest I reveal some major spoilerage, but I'll try to get by as best as I can here. Basically, Joel suddenly finds that Clem has no idea who he is. He's puzzled by this revelation until he learns that what has actually occurred: Clementine has enlisted the help of an experimental doctor who erases memories. Joel confronts the doctor, and is convinced to undergo the procedure himself in order to remove Clementine from his own memory. However, once the process has begun, he begins to regret his decision to wipe out what he has left of Clementine.
But things aren't quite as they seem, either. Without giving too much away, you'll just have to keep in mind that Kaufman has never been the kind of writer who follows "the rules". The storyline here isn't completely linear, which reveals a whole new side to the events in the film's opening. A good portion of the film takes place in Joel's memory as well, and director Michel Gondry does wonders to play games with percepton as the events of the film unfold.
The film is guided along by an enviable cast of actors. Carrey and Winslet are both terrific and believable in the leading roles. Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and Elijah Wood turn in respectable supporting performances, with each character falling into place in the puzzle as the movie chugs along. Jane Adams and David Cross, portraying a married couple with whom Joel is close, provide for some comic relief. As an aside, it's pretty much a testament to someone's comic capabilities when their mere presence on screen gets a laugh out of an audience. When Cross first appeared, before he even said a word, he was met with laughter in my theater.
Jim Carrey has never been better as an actor. While he's shown his ability to turn in an admirable performance in THE TRUMAN SHOW and MAN ON THE MOON, he was still playing those roles like only Jim Carrey would (the jury's still out for me on THE MAJESTIC, as I had no desire to see it when it was released.) Here, Carrey is subdued, understated, and most of all, human. I actually had to remind myself that this was the same guy who played Ace Ventura a few times during the course of the film.
The film is at its best when it plays up Carrey's strengths in the scenes where we're practically swimming through a deluge of Joel's memories. As Joel's subconscious tries to "hide" his memories of Clementine in unlikely corridors of his psyche, we're treated to an old-fashioned chase sequence, complete with some funny scenarios putting Carrey in the place of a much younger Joel. In fact, this is practically the only point in the film where the "real" Jim Carrey stands out, as he steps into the guise of a four-year old in mommy's kitchen or as a schoolboy seeking revenge on the bullies from his youth. The way these scenes are played out are done in a bold move that could have easily fallen flat without the benefit of a capable director putting Kaufman's vision on the screen.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is science fiction in its purest form. Because it doesn't take place on a faraway planet or feature alien invaders, most people will gloss over the fact that it falls snugly in that genre. But this film fits along with other brilliant science fiction films that tend to go unnoticed as members of that genre: idea-based films like GROUNDHOG DAY and (sorry, Chad) MINORITY REPORT.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE is a lot better than I expected it to be, and I wasn't exactly figuring it for a stinker. It certainly is a must-see for anyone who enjoyed the cinematic mindfuck that was ADAPTATION or the sheer fantasy that was BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. It looks like word of mouth has been pretty strong, so hopefully it won't be completely left in the dark a year from now when awards start being handed out. This film deserves to be rewarded for its writing, directing, and acting.
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