Kaufman and director Michael Gondry collaborated once before on the oddball comedy “Human Nature,” and each has shown a desire to alter our perception of what movies are capable of. “Eternal Sunshine” is another trip down the rabbit hole, jumbling time and place much like last year’s “21 Grams.” It’s a gauzy, dreamlike film where plot is initially subordinate to mood and tone, and the relationship of events is only gradually revealed.
Stop reading now if you want to go in with your own spotless mind. There’s a good reason for Kaufman’s process. He has written a story about that mysterious, liquid property called memory, specifically the memories between Joel Barish (Carrey) and his ex-girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). The two have decided to forget about each other, like many formerly passionate people wish they could do after a breakup. In the world of “Eternal Sunshine,” it’s easy. You simply drive down to Lacuna Inc., a memory removal lab that takes care of them like unwanted warts.
That sounds great to Joel, staggered by his ex’s complete recovery from their tumultuous time together, though he is understandably cautious about the procedure. The first sign of trouble comes in the form of three pot-smoking and not totally scrupulous technicians charged with the operation (played by Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst in their most fitting roles to date). This is laughable science, and Kaufman wisely sprinkles little punchlines here and there with due gravity so as not to spoil what is a surprisingly serious film. We may chuckle, but poor Joel is honestly concerned by the safety of his silver memory helmet, which looks like a carved out half of a giant golf ball covered in aluminum foil. “It is brain damage, in a way,” explains the doctor (Tom Wilkinson) to answer one of Joel’s concerns. But don’t worry, he reassures, it’s no worse than a night of heavy drinking.
Carrey’s worsening look of anxiety is delicious deadpan worth a thousand of his funny faces. In fact, we’ve never seen the actor retreat so completely from court-jester mode. He even manages to achieve a believable chemistry with Winslet, almost unrecognizable as an impetuous neo-hippie with brightly colored hair. Thus shed of his Jerry Lewis, Carrey is able to act like a real leading man, however damaged by a woman. We feel real sympathy when he wants his memory back. It’s the very substance, he realizes, of his relationship.
The first half of “Eternal Sunshine” is a weird adventure for everyone, including Joel, whose half-crazed wanderings through his own mind creates one of the most convincing (and watchable) examples of stream of consciousness on film. His eventual realization that he’s having the worst lucid dream of all time allows Kaufman and Gondry the chance to go nuts. Books disappear from the shelves as Joel and Clementine (her memory, at least) escape through a library. Buildings get sucked into the great beyond. People disappear as if the rapture were at hand.
It’s almost inevitable that the filmmakers get lost in “Ace Ventura” country at times, a few instances that reveal their most regrettable impulses and Carrey’s worst comedic qualities. In its defense, “Eternal Sunshine” is so inventive and excited about filmmaking — not to mention a beautiful story — it’d be a shame to simply dismiss it for trying a little too hard. The theme of this tale is that Joel and Clementine are forced to decide between the scary prospect of loving each other or forget their relationship altogether. It’s clear that this movie affirms risk taking, and its ability to make things new again. **** S
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