Words by Matt Poe
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)
A man decides to undergo a procedure to erase the memories of him with his former lover. He soon realizes what he’s truly done and attempts to reverse the procedure.
Category: Drama, Comedy, Romance
Rated R for language, some drug and sexual content
Starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst
Written by Charlie Kaufman. Directed by Michel Gondry
Come one, come all. It’s time for another edition of Poe’s Picks. It’s the return of my favorite installment of the blog. (And it better be yours too, dammit.) Poe’s Favorites is my attempt to win you over with movies near and dear to my heart that’ll hopefully become favorites of yours as well. Folks, I don’t know much else to say other than I adore this movie and have since first viewing it five or so years ago. It’s easily crept into my top 10 favorite movies of all time. Yeah, it’s that good.
I guarantee you have never seen a movie like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” because I don’t think a movie like it has ever been made before or imitated since. Anyone who tries to do so would fall flat on his ass because it’s such a brilliant concept, one that is near impossible to pull off. All is academic right now so we’ll sidestep the usual hoops and get right into the thick of things because this one is going to take some explaining. *rolls up sleeves, opens PowerPoint presentation*
The film begins with Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) spontaneously deciding to skip work one winter’s day and take a train to Montauk, which is quite out of character for his reserved nature. Barish is a quiet guy, shy and rather awkward in most social settings. On the train, he meets a woman named Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) who is the complete opposite: loud, brash and willing to say whatever is on her mind. Immediately, Kruczynski asks Barish if they’ve met; something about his presence tells her this may not be their first encounter. Barish, unsure of any prior meetings with her, reluctantly agrees that the two have met sometime before.
From there, the movie begins to move in a nonlinear fashion, jumping around different points in Barish and Kruczynski’s lives. We eventually learn the two, different as they are, hit it off and begin a relationship. The film moves around and shows us the great and not-so-great moments of their relationship, helping us form an idea of them as a couple.
Their relationship begins to grow sour and Barish finds an inconceivable note at a friend’s house: Kruczynski has erased all her memories of Barish after their breakup. Equally upset, Barish decides to visit Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) to have the same procedure done; if she wants to forget him, he’ll reluctantly do the same. All he has to do is undergo the procedure and the two can begin again, indifferent and unaware of their prior history together.
Of course things don’t go as planned and this is where the movie really begins to take form. The nonlinear fashion of the film can be hard to follow upon first-time viewings. Hell, I’ve seen the movie probably five or six times now and I still catch something new every time. Like all great wines, movies and relationships, it gets better with age. (Nice cliché, dingus.)
The film was written by Charlie Kaufman, who’s also brought us films such as “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” Kaufman’s works are distinctly his own and tend to move in nonlinear fashions. Some love it, some think it’s a little artsy and can put unnecessary weight on the film. Personally? I call it style and I love it. Kaufman has enough respect for the audience to give them the pieces of the puzzle instead of assembling it for them.
The cast of this beauty is stellar. Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst all have very nice supporting roles as employees of the company tasked with wiping away Barish’s memory. Within their triangle, they have some secrets of their own and each actor is given enough room to make their character distinctly itself. Wilkinson is always reliable in whatever role he plays and he brings that usual steadiness to his role as the man behind the memory-wiping technology.
Carrey and Winslet shine the brightest here. Winslet is the true star and there’s something to be said about how great she is in this, given her outstanding career. Her Clementine is a complex fireball prone to all kinds of behavior. Alongside her, Carrey gives his best performance to date. His Joel is a sad sap but a good guy who really just needs to believe in himself. It’s also a stray from his usual wacky antics and it’s nice to see him play a character with more complexities and issues.
“Eternal Sunshine” is ultimately about memories and what they mean to us. We pick and choose what we want to remember about our relationships. It’s too easy to remember just the good or just the bad instead of understanding that relationships are truly neither of those things. They just are. Barish realizes the mistake he’s made when trying to erase Kruczynski from his life and we, along with him, begin to realize that without those memories we really have nothing in life.
Someone once said when we often look back on the bad times in relationships, the bad times don’t seem so bad at all. Again, somebody’s (me) been drinking the nostalgia, but it’s true. Cover your ears or eyes for what I’m about to say next: Most relationships end in pain. Whether it’s a breakup, divorce, death or some hunky pool boy moving in next door, seldom do they ever end how we want.
As they begin to peel the layers of memories in their relationship, Barish and Kruczynski realize those things. They’re two different people who know that if they begin again, the chances of it ending in hurt are likely. But like most things in life and most relationships, it only hurts if it means something. I digress. Watch this movie. Watch it again. Hopefully you find some beautiful things in it as well.
Until next time.
In Good Films We Trust,
Matt “Roger Ebert wishes he was half the film critic I am” Poe