Even with John Cusack, who has a special place in my heart, Being John Malkovich does nothing for me at all. The best response to the film I can manage is to roll my eyes, and I find no redeeming qualities in it at all, apart (maybe) from a few bits of dialogue. Nevertheless, I do find myself in the curious position of being glad that a lot of people found something in it. Charlie Kaufman’s first effort didn’t exactly break any box-office records, but it managed to get Kaufman work. My dislike of his first effort becomes more confusing (to me anyway) when considering my fondness for his later films. Human Nature needs to be seen more, and even if Confessions of a Dangerous Mind wasn’t anything wonderful, it was still a fun ride. Adaptation is brilliant in certain respects, even if I can’t say in every respect, and now we have Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is brilliant in at least most respects.
A quick glance at the outline of Eternal Sunshine will easily (and correctly to some degree) give one the impression of a movie that explores the old yarn about people being destined to end up together. A slightly deeper look reveals that we’re exploring the human mind. But, the real exploration here, the one that’s really interesting, isn’t about relationships with other people, or our minds, but our relationship with other people in our mind.
Eternal Sunshine does not play out in a linear fashion, but a linear presentation wouldn’t make a lot of sense in this case, and that’s without the semi-surprise at the end. It’ll make sense in a second. At some point in our story, Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) have been dating for a couple years. They break up, and when Joel makes an attempt to work things out, Clementine acts as if she doesn’t know him at all. It is eventually revealed that Clementine has had Joel erased from her memory. A new procedure allows people to have specific memories erased, and Clementine has had everything about Joel removed. Joel, in a fit of unusual spontaneity, decides to follow suit. If she’s not going to remember him, then why should he have to remember her?
The trouble begins when Joel’s procedure starts. While finding himself reliving every moment of his life with Clementine, Joel realizes what’s happening, and then the real fun begins. Though the first act, quite correctly, finds Joel sparring with his own negative reactions to ‘things Clementine has done’ and his anger at the break up and his own ‘erasing’, setting the audience up for plenty of feelings of ‘good riddance’, the movie quickly moves on to Joel’s realization that he’s losing something more than memories. As we move to more and more memories, Joel sees past the specific events (even the annoying ones) and finds his undeniably positive reaction to ‘who Clementine is’. He has a logical reason to find fault with most of what she does, even from the first time they met when she stole his chicken, but he can’t seem to get around the fact that it was her doing them, and that seems to undermine all the logic that so powerfully fueled his anger. Perhaps more importantly (or perhaps it’s the same fact), he realizes that Clementine exists in his mind in a way almost more real than she exists outside it.
Joel and Clementine (the one in his mind) embark on a struggle to hide Clementine in some of Joel’s buried memories so that those at the computer controls won’t be able to erase her completely. The flight through Joel’s mind is intermixed with other struggles going on in the real world. Clementine finds herself in these struggles as well, along with the doctor who performs this strange procedure and much of his staff.
Though these sub-plots are interesting and useful, I won’t go into them here so as not to spoil the interplay they create. Suffice it to say that Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood, while none of them have the chance and/or ability to stand out much, manage quite as well as can be expected. Elijah Wood in particular, with very little opportunity, delivers precisely the role we’re after here, even if we may be tempted toward prejudice against his too-young appearance.
Carrey and Winslet are outstanding, the only detriment to be found in either of them is that Winslet is slightly unbelievable as a person who would have blue hair. In ways too numerous to mention (and hopefully obvious), convincingly portraying ‘a person inside their own memories’ is a tricky game at best. What is difficult even in theory is made all the worse here by the ‘spotlight’ approach to representing the unrepresentable. Carrey has to be ‘on’ in a spectacularly curious way, and never gets to stop. His is probably not a name mentioned frequently in association with great dramatic actors, but he is on the short list of actors who can manage ‘always on’. Moreover, though he may not have wowed people with his more serious roles, he certainly gains ground here, and for much the same reason that he did quite well in The Truman Show. There’s a certain palpable vulnerability that comes through most clearly only when the hyperkinetic, ‘have to be funny every second’ Robin Williams/Jim Carrey/Chandler types actually take a breath and seem to become aware of the uncertainty that makes them like that in the first place.
In the end, Eternal Sunshine becomes almost a thematic mirror of Lost in Translation. It’s not a simplistic, mostly meaningless, ‘feel good’ move like ‘people are more than the sum of their parts’ that puts the now semi-famous smile on Charlotte’s face at the end of ‘Translation’, and it isn’t such a move that gets Joel and Clementine to say “Okay”. It’s that people aren’t even part of their parts. The film even manages an unspoken wink at its own inherent flaw – it realizes you would have to erase your memories of the entire duration of the relationship in total. Your partner not being present does not constitute a memory that doesn’t include your partner. The movie winks at this fact (while also correctly representing the human memory) by way of Joel not knowing who Huckleberry Hound is, but that’s all I’ll say here.
There are basically three reactions to Lost in Translation. There are those who think it’s utterly moronic, pretentious twaddle that people have only liked because it somehow became hip in the right circles to say you liked it. There are those who had slightly above lukewarm reactions, thinking it was pretty decent, but still wondering a bit about all the fuss. Then there are those people who, only partially metaphorically, consider Lost in Translation to have kicked their ass. These last follow Bob and Charlotte in thinking that there are many lifetimes in a life, and even small events can rebuild you. Eternal Sunshine is not as powerful, but your reaction is very likely to map well with your reaction to Lost in Translation.
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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Widescreen