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Head Over Heels in Love

An Empty Memory Is No Match for a Full Heart In 'Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2004; Page C01

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is a rabbit hole of a movie, inviting viewers on a dizzying plunge through love, loss and, finally, consciousness itself.

The story of a nondescript Everyman named Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) who falls in and out of love with a willful free spirit named Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) and then undergoes a futuristic procedure to forget her, the movie would seem to be about two people who connect, break up and try to find their way back to one another. But it's also about every synaptic fuse and hiccup that make romance -- and self-deception and hope and heartbreak -- possible. Ingenious, exhilarating, funny and profound, "Eternal Sunshine" arrives as a well-timed spring breeze to blow away the detritus of a surpassingly dull winter.

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey give spark to a surreal comedy about love, loss and disremembrance. (David Lee - Focus Features)

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'Eternal Sunshine' Showtimes
Kaufman's 'Eternal' Search

Written by Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation"), the film bears his signature stamp of whacked-out humor combined with an erudite interest in philosophy, neuroscience and the plasticity of desire (the title is taken from a poem by Alexander Pope). And where he's always had a deeply humanist bent -- his scripts are clever, but never at the expense of his characters -- this might be Kaufman's warmest movie yet. It's certainly his most out-and-out romantic, as he explores not only Joel and Clementine's relationship but how they construct that relationship in their own minds and memories.

Here, Joel and Clementine meet and embark on a year-long affair; when they go through an ugly breakup, Clementine hires a firm called Lacuna to erase her memories of Joel. The white-coated memory doctor (Tom Wilkinson) and his young, slightly gonzo staff (Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood) ply their trade by having clients bring in every memento that reminds them of the soon-to-be-forgotten. The patients are then hooked up to a computer and systematically purged of every offending memory while they sleep. Outrageous, sure, but the surrealism is propelled by such a feeling of spontaneity that viewers can easily believe, as Joel suggests in a prologue, that it all happened just last month (Valentine's Day 2004, to be exact).

When Joel finds out that he's been erased, he's miffed, and decides to do the same to Clementine. Much of the film transpires while he's undergoing the procedure, a journey through ever-opening doors of perception that Joel experiences as if in a waking dream. Joel's backward reconstruction of his relationship with Clem -- and his last-ditch efforts to keep some memories before she's lost and gone forever -- is indescribably complex, and director Michel Gondry choreographs it with confidence and superb control.

A former music video director who directed Kaufman's overlooked "Human Nature" (another romance with philosophic and scientific preoccupations), Gondry has decided to leave behind the computer-generated images that have seduced so many of his peers. Mostly he dramatizes Joel's head trip using sound design, staging and low-tech visual effects (in one of the film's most powerful scenes, Joel enters another realm of consciousness, a transition represented by the lights behind him going off, one by one). The results, in their intricate detail and execution, are nothing short of brilliant, from the book spines going blank in the background of one of Joel's rapidly degrading memories to the film's emotionally devastating set piece in which a beach house crumbles and fills with sand while Joel and Clementine face a pivotal choice.

Working with cinematographer Ellen Kuras, production designer Dan Leigh and editor Valdis Oskarsdottir, Gondry follows Joel's hopscotch through his own mind with the seamless fluidity the material demands. As densely layered and intuitively constructed as the plot is, viewers are never unsure of where they stand, even when time swoops, circles and folds in on itself (Clementine's ever-changing hair color also helps).

What's more, Gondry has elicited formidable performances from his two lead players, each of whom has been cast against type in a difficult role. Even when forced to wear costumes and wigs that make her look like Pippi Longstocking after an acid-fueled trip to the thrift market, Winslet maintains a reassuring equilibrium. It takes an actor of her steadiness to play someone this unhinged.

For his part, Carrey hasn't shown this much range and focus since "The Truman Show," in which he played another character caught up in competing notions of reality. The degree of difficulty here, though, has been exponentially increased, as Carrey is asked to act out shifts in time and emotion within moments, often in a single shot. He rises to the challenge with ease, humor and depth of feeling that will surprise those fans who still insist on thinking of him as Ace Ventura.

The supporting cast is awfully good, too, especially Ruffalo, who bravely abandons any pretense of vanity in a role that at one point has him dancing awkwardly, dressed only in thick black glasses and Jockey shorts. It's one of the film's more antic moments, and yet another example of a sequence that in any hands other than Kaufman and Gondry's would likely have come off as impossibly forced and self-conscious. Instead, like all the other scenes, it plays effortlessly and helps move the story to its poignant, and wholly unexpected, conclusion. How sweetly ironic that "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" would turn out to be the perfect movie about love's inevitable imperfections.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for language and drug and sexual content.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company