Saturday, February 12, 2011

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Well, it's just about Valentine's Day again. I've always had trouble with the cinematic notion of what romance should be.  Romantic comedies are insulting to my intelligence (but maybe not yours, I'm not judging), and Nicholas Sparks movies are manipulative pieces of trash (I'm okay judging this one).  So, where does a moderately odd person like myself find his romantic movies?  Today, I find it in a Charlie Kaufman script.

Joel (Jim Carrey) seems to be a pretty normal guy.  Maybe he's introverted, or maybe he's just uncomfortable.  On the day before Valentine's Day, while waiting for his train to work, Joel is seized by an overwhelming urge to go to Montauk --- so he skips work and jumps on the Montauk train.  If you are unfamiliar with New York, Montauk appears to be a fairly ritzy beach town, although it is mostly deserted in the middle of February.  While spending the day there, Joel meets Clementine (Kate Winslet), an outgoing stranger with bright blue hair.  Initially overcome by shyness and shock, Joel eventually warms up to Clementine and the two really hit it off.  In fact, Joel offers her a ride home and, instead of going inside, she asks if she can go home with him --- just as soon as she grabs her toothbrush.

That's a pretty good first quasi-date, right?  Well, it's not.  Joel and Clementine have dated for the past two years, but don't remember it.  After they had a big fight, Clementine went to the Lacuna Company and underwent a procedure where they selectively erased all memories of Joel from her mind.  When Joel found out, he did the same to her memories.  Halfway through, though, Joel realizes that he made a mistake.  Sure, the mean memories leaving are no big deal, and he lets them go with a smirk.  But the happy memories, and there are so many of those, are too special not to hold on to.

Michel Gondry was, at this time, better known for directing music videos than movies.  Fair enough, the man has made some pretty awesome videos, notably for Bjork, Radiohead, and The White Stripes.  This film is way beyond anything he had ever done before.  Most of the time, when a director has music video experience, their movies have moments of visual brilliance, but they tend to misuse the actors and the script.  Not so much here.  Gondry's touch is obvious throughout the movie, from the lighting to the soft-focus camera work in the memories of Joel.  This isn't a visually interesting movie, this is a fantastic visual experience.  The camerawork is wonderful, showing the stars at their happiest and at their puffy-eyed and bleary-faced worst.  The lighting takes on a character of its own when the natural lights turn into a spotlight, hunting for Joel's memories of Clementine to destroy them.  This narrative is designed like a maze, so it is especially impressive that, except for the first jump back in Joel's memory, the movie isn't very confusing (surreal, yes; confusing, not really).  Gondry's editing and direction are to thank for this; he was able to establish visual cues (like Clementine's hair color) to let the audience know an approximate time for whatever events they are watching.

As impressive as Gondry's direction is, the bizarre screenplay from Charlie Kaufman is what stands out most.  From a purely technical standpoint, this is an impressive piece of work.  The story folds back into itself, winds around, folds into itself again and again and again, to the point where the story could just be a labyrinth --- and that still would have been a really cool movie.  What sets this story apart from Kaufman's earlier work, like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, is that this goes beyond his normal "seriously, how do you come up with this stuff" plots and actually has an emotional core.  Joel and Clementine's relationship is  natural and believable and understated, and that's what makes it feel so true.  Sure, this could be another wacky story about opposites attracting, and some of their memories are just silly, but this is about puzzles finding their missing pieces.

The cast was really good, and I'm impressed with several of the performances.  This is my favorite dramatic Jim Carrey role, if only because he keeps his rubber face in check for almost the entire movie.  I really liked his performance; he wasn't terribly charming or witty, and he always seemed to say the wrong thing, but this was a vulnerable piece of work.  Kate Winslet was fabulous, as usual.  While I may not want to see everything she's in, Winslet has never been anything less than excellent in anything I've seen her in.  There is a tendency for female characters with loud personalities to be flighty or flaky, but her performance made her eccentric character less of a caricature and more of an impulsive friend.  The supporting cast was surprisingly good, given their limited screen time.  Kirsten Dunst, who I normally hate, was great as the love-sick young woman, and she had one of the more believable performances I've seen of a character high from the medicinal hookah (as the hep kids call it).  Mark Ruffalo was solid, although his haircut really irritated me.  Tom Wilkinson was also respectable.  Elijah Wood, though was downright creepy as the socially inept stalker of Clementine.  I was less impressed with Jane Adams and David Cross, but even their relationship had layers to it.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which takes its name from an Alexander Pope poem, FYI) is the sort of thing that we ought to see more of in movies.  This could not have worked so well in any other form of media; this is the sort of film that I finish and feel excited.  Brilliantly written, flawlessly executed, and well acted.
Somebody requested that I review this movie a while back, but I was saving it for this "holiday."  Sorry for the wait! 

Here's a clip of Michel Gondry doing what he does best: blowing my mind.

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