Have you ever wished, at the beginning of a relationship, that you could shoot ahead to the end of the relationship, rapture to rupture, and look back over the whole thing with a combination of excitement and disappointment? That's what Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind attempts to do, and the result is, well, exciting and disappointing -- a dizzying blur of emotions that captures something few movies have even thought about before, the way our memory of someone affects who we are, which affects the way we remember them. With a title taken from 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isn't about to give up its secrets very easily, but they're there to be found, in the nooks and crannies of its labyrinthine plot. And the love story that lies at the center of the labyrinth is unusually poignant. It's about two people who are meant to be together and meant to fall apart.
Jim Carrey, of all people, is Joel, a nondescript guy with a nondescript job who lives in a nondescript apartment. When the movie opens, Joel's off to work, but at the last moment he catches a train to Montauk, where he wanders along a wintry beach before meeting Clementine (Kate Winslet), a young woman with blue hair, a job at Barnes & Noble and a personality that veers from manic to maniacal. Joel and Clementine aren't exactly a match made in heaven. We can infer that from the question Joel asks himself in voice-over narration: "Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?" But they seem to have complementary neuroses. He's mild-mannered, she's wild-mannered. He's fearful, she's fearless. He's deliberate, she's spontaneous. When Clementine coaxes Joel out onto the ice of a frozen river, we realize she could be just what he needs, an emotional ice-breaker.
Then, before you can say Alice in Wonderland, we're dropped down the rabbit-hole, landing with a thud inside Joel's head. He and Clementine have broken up, and Clementine has engaged the services of Lacuna Inc., a rather shady operation that, for a fee, will erase all memories of a loved/loathed one. When Joel gets a card in the mail telling him that his darling Clementine will no longer recognize him, he decides to take a jackhammer to his own Memory Lane. The procedure is amusingly low-tech. While Joel lies in bed, unconscious, a Lacuna employee (Mark Ruffalo) shift-clicks a computer keyboard hooked up to a device over Joel's head that looks like a beauty-salon hair dryer. The memories are supposed to disappear in reverse order, but something goes awry, perhaps because the Lacuna employee, instead of shift-clicking, is hopping around Joel's bedroom in his underwear with another Lacuna employee (Kirsten Dunst).
Whatever the cause, Joel changes his mind, and what had been a rather straight-ahead account of a relationship's rise and fall becomes a forward-and-backward account of a relationship's fall and rise. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was written by Charlie Kaufman, who's already teased our brains with Being John Malko vich and Adaptation, and this one is perhaps even more challenging. I must confess that, at times, I wasn't sure whether I was inside or outside Joel's head, and the scenes where he watches himself being operated on had me thinking this was the second time he was going through the procedure. And maybe it was. Then again, maybe not. I like movies that time-travel up their own navels -- Groundhog Day, 12 Monkeys, Memento, 50 First Dates. But if we lose all connection with the outside world, the Carrollian dream-logic can start to seem too fuzzy. This belly button is veritably stuffed with lint.
What's interesting, though, is how much of an emotional charge director Michel Gondry gives to individual scenes. Gondry directed 2002's Human Nature, also based on a script by Charlie Kaufman. There, the nature-nurture premise seemed like an excuse for indulging in whimsy. Here, Gondry taps into the sadness that's at the core of all our memories, good or bad -- the sense of loss. As Joel, inside his head, tries to find a place to hide Clementine so that the Lacuna technicians can't get to her, the surroundings crumble or fade away or mutate, and it feels like we're trapped inside the brain of someone with Alzheimer's. Gondry and cinematographer Ellen Kuras keep the palette dark, bleeding out most of the color. And more important, they handle the surreal touches as if they were the most natural things in the world -- f/x by Lacuna Inc.
As Joel, Carrey has finally rid himself of the need to be "on" even when playing someone who's supposed to be "off." It's an admiringly restrained performance, keyed by his voice, which has the dull lull of Prozac about it. Winslet manages to be both charming and alarming as Clementine. We have no trouble seeing why Joel would be attracted to her, then repelled by her, then attracted, then repelled. The movie comes at us like a train that's jumped the rails, spilling its contents all over the countryside, and yet we can detect, beneath the wreckage, that old familiar story arc: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. The difference is that the arc now stretches to the horizon in an infinite regression of pain and pleasure. Or is it a Moebius strip, circling back to where it all started? Either way, the movie's more than a mere brain-teaser. Like the happiest and saddest memories of our lives, it's one from the heart.