Michael Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is a quirky art-house film with a mainstream overtone. Jim Carrey plays a sad and depressed character named Joel, the first sign we're in art-house territory. When the film opens, Joel narrates his every move as if we were listening to his brain transcribe the day's events. He is suffering from a sudden breakup with a flamboyant character named Clementine (Kate Winslet), who has used the services of a medical firm called Lacuna to erase her memory of him as if he never existed. Joel decides to return the favor by signing up for the procedure himself.
I had imagined Joel walking into a futuristic building with flashing lights and beeping sounds, or at least something resembling the office of the guy who pioneered LASIK surgery. But in a Charlie Kaufman powered movie, it shouldn't be too surprising that a revolutionary physician would practice out of an old NY-style apartment building that probably shares space with a deli.
The practice is run by Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his misfit team of young assistants. The main technician is Stan (Mark Ruffalo), unwisely responsible for performing most of the operations from his computer. He is assisted by Patrick (Elijah Wood), the insecure electrical guy who makes sure all the wires are properly connected. And finally there's Mary (Kirsten Dunst), the receptionist and girlfriend of Stan with a secret or two begging to be revealed.
"Is there any danger of brain damage?" Joel asks Dr. Mierzwiak as he uncomfortably waits to be examined. "Well, technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage. On par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you'll miss." How assuring.
The Lacuna gang is working out of Joel's home doing the memory washing procedure that will take all night. Dr. Mierzwiak has left for the evening allowing Stan to finish the job. As he sits at his computer zapping memory cells of Clementine, the film shifts back and forth from reality to inside Joel's head where he can hear everything going on in the real world, but is unable to wakeup and is powerless to stop the procedure. He has decided halfway through the operation that he wants to hold on to the few precious memories of Clementine he has left, but time is fading and his fleeting memory distorts what left there is to grab.
What we're now watching is a long series of montages and sequences showing Joel and Clementine as they were when they were together. But because we're really just looking into fading memories, we are treated to tricky shots, fading images, sound distortions, and my favorite; locations that melt into something else, like the Barnes & Nobel store that becomes Joel's apartment or the beach-front house that crumbles into the ocean.
This all works well and is cleverly constructed by the gifted Michael Gondry, a veteran music video director who shares one of the three writing credits alongside Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth. But it comes to a point when the effects being to diminish. To be sure, I walked into the film expecting most of it to be about Carrey's character trapped inside his own mind, but I wasn't prepared for it to be almost the entire movie. After about the 15th time we see Joel dragging Clementine out of one memory and into the next before she disappears and reappears somewhere else, I started loosing interest.
I was more involved with the supporting characters; the gang that makes up Lacuna. Stan and Mary make an interesting couple, taking advantage of unsupervised time to get stoned and party at Joel's house while he is helplessly trapped inside his own mind but still able to hear what's going on in the real world. This is Kirsten Dunst's best role as it's the only one I've seen her in that truly showcases her ability to act on multiple levels, something we can't see when she plays the character with the same name in the "Spiderman" movies. I also enjoyed Elijah Wood's Patrick as the sneaky employee who takes advantage of Lacuna's patients by learning and manipulating their relationship turn-on/offs.
But we spend little time in the real world and almost all of it Joel's mind, which is, like I said, fun and enjoyable but a little too long. Notice how many times we see Joel and Clementine chasing each other on the beach, and how many times we see them go into the beach house, and how many times they relax on the frozen lake.
Readers were unhappy with the 'B' grade I gave "Adaptation" (perhaps a second viewing is in order), and they probably won't be satisfied with my generous review of "Eternal Sunshine." I don't deny Kaufman's talent and ability to take a simple concept and stretch it for nearly two hours, but none of his films have ever been able to grab me the way they're supposed to, so says some readers. But I still give the film a "B+." It's brilliant on almost all technical levels despite some choppy editing that no one will convince me was intentional. It's a film Kaufman fans will adore, but it's the one I'm sure most of them would rather call great but not wish to sit through a second time.