ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND directed by Michel Gondry, written by Charlie Kaufman, Gondry and Pierre Bismuth, produced by Anthony Bregman and Steve Golin, with Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood and Tom Wilkinson. 108 minutes. A Focus Features production. An Alliance Atlantis release. For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 76. Rating: NNNN
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the latest eruption from the brain of Charlie Kaufman, stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as a couple who break up. Joel (Carrey) wants to get back together but discovers that Clementine (Winslet) has had him erased from her memory. Rather than endure the pain, he decides to undergo the same procedure. The film begins in the middle and flashes back and forth at a dizzying rate, working its way through new meetings and old disasters while following the parallel trail of the technicians executing the memory erasure, played by Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst.
The presence of Wood and Dunst, rising young stars in small supporting roles, is testimony to the regard in which Kaufman is held in Hollywood.
The screenwriter of Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind is a bizarre anomaly in an industry where studio executives and producers change writers more often than they change their assistants. Kaufman has such a peculiar vision of the world that he is now more of a brand name than the directors he works with - at this point mostly Spike Jonze (Malkovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry, who directed this film and Human Nature.
Carrey gives one of his low-key dramatic performances - more akin to his work in The Truman Show than anything else he's done. He has the most challenging part, since his character's working through the most mental confusion - present Joel, past Joel and Joel wandering through his own head while people try to erase his memory, which is a bit like the extended chase scene inside John Malkovich's head in Being John Malkovich.
The key issue in Kaufman's films is the nature of identity: how we create ourselves inside our heads - or, in the case of Being John Malkovich, someone else's head - and how we can work within a construct at once so durable and so fragile. Are we who we are if we lose our memories? Is it possible for the mental construct to replace external reality? These questions are explored in the form of very strange puzzle films.
Adaptation may be Kaufman's masterpiece to this point, a film that we gradually come to realize is the film the two main characters are writing. Jonze may be a stronger collaborator for Kaufman than Gondry, who never quite got the timing right for the gags in Human Nature.
He does better with Eternal Sunshine, a comedy soaked in romantic despair.