Editor’s Note: Welcome to the limited Drama Series, in which our writers will discuss their favorite dramatic performances from comedic actors. Today, we are discussing Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004).
Written By: Daniel Kinsley
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.
-Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard
Memories are a funny thing. They can motivate or cripple in equal measure, sometimes in the span of a single moment. Memory is also selective, for most of us. We hold dear the things that validate our point of view, and discard the rest. This is perhaps most true when it comes to the things which hurt us. After a painful experience, such as a difficult break-up, many of us tend to lean into some kind of reinvention. People will change their hair, focus on getting in shape, or nurture a new hobby; while this is largely driven by a sense of needing to reclaim one’s sense of self, it is nearly impossible to deny the notion that it is also about forgetting. In Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004) the forgetting is quite literal.
By 2004, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman had developed a reputation as a white-hot writer, penning surreal scripts like Being John Malkovich (1999) in which a puppeteer discovers a literal portal into the head of actor John Malkovich, and Adaptation (2002) a master-class in structural writing starring Nicolas Cage as a fictional version of Kaufman. With Eternal Sunshine, he achieved something no less impressive, though it was (and remains) his most accessible film. Imagine one day you receive a letter in the mail that says someone has just erased you from their memory. It is a simple, yet powerful hook, and invites a number of ideas and questions about the effects such a process would have. Over time, the film has only gone on to feel more prescient; caught in the midst of a social media boom, the careful curation of our whole lives has bled into nearly everything we do. In the modern age, perhaps no other film feels as faithful to the way we live.
The film begins in earnest with Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) narrating a passage in his journal, noting there has not been a previous entry in over two years. As Joel flees from his scheduled train, briefcase flapping wildly behind him to catch a train to Montauk, his soft-spoken tone feels at odds with the exigence in his movement when he explains, “I’m not an impulsive person.” While wandering the freezing February beach, he nearly crosses paths with a woman clad in a bright orange sweatshirt and blue hair. He notices her twice more, first sitting nearby at a diner, then on the platform waiting for the train. On the ride back to the city, he sees her once again, and she draws him into conversation; she is certain that she knows him from somewhere. Soon, she introduces herself as Clementine (Kate Winslet) (“But no jokes about my name, okay?” ; itself a joke with one hell of a callback later). After several viewings of the film, it is interesting to watch the way in which their larger conflicts play out in miniature, even after only just getting (re) acquainted; Clementine is all piss and vinegar, talking like a runaway freight train, and shifting gears just as quickly, while Joel is awkward, and quiet, mimicking his impressions of what a “nice” guy would say. On the surface, these are character types we have seen before; Joel shares personality traits with fellow “nice” guys like Tom Hansen (of 500 Days of Summer) falling in love with every woman who shows him the slightest bit of attention, while Clementine appears to be another quirky, facile, manic-pixie dream girl.
The ride home leads to a painfully shy Joel agreeing to join Clementine for a drink at her place, and then a late night trip to a frozen lake, where the uneasy Joel finally begins to loosen up. Despite the awkward interactions, there is undoubtedly an intimacy between them. Unbeknownst to both parties, the two feel so comfortable together because they are former lovers. After ending a tumultuous two-year relationship, Clementine undergoes a procedure to have her memories of Joel erased, carried out by Lacuna, Inc., a neurological venture led by Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). Joel visits friends Rob and Carrie (David Cross & Jane Adams) after a bizarre encounter with Clementine, in which she acts as if she does not know him. While there, Rob reveals via a typewritten card instructing them to make no mention of Joel now that Clementine has had him wiped from her memory. Joel decides, in a juvenile attempt at revenge, to undergo the same procedure.
The way it works is like this: Joel is instructed to collect any and everything he associates with Clementine (“Journal entries, clothes, CDs she may have bought you”) which will help Lacuna create a map of his memories; in effect, a full slate to be wiped clean. As Joel becomes more familiarized with the process, he is introduced to Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (a spectacularly creepy Elijah Wood) as the technicians who will be performing his erasure, along with Mary (Kirsten Dunst) the receptionist who is dating Stan but harbors a secret crush on her boss, Dr. Mierzwiak.
When Stan and Patrick show up to begin the procedure, the film really blossoms, employing an unusual (for the genre) non-linear structure, as much of the remaining story bounces around inside of Joel’s head, outlining the way things ended with Clementine and moving backward, toward the beginning. Rather than attempting to pull any gotcha! moments, however, this kaleidoscopic approach is an attempt to examine the fragmentary nature of memory itself, and the ways in which we look back. For many of us, that means imbuing the past with a warmth that was not always there. Though Joel is devastated by Clementine’s absence, it is clear in revisiting his last memories at just how frigid and miserable things had become between them. Witnessing the brief, nasty fight that led to their break-up is a perfect examination of the way their relationship had become toxic, and the ways in which Joel, in particular, bargains for things not to end, despite his obvious unhappiness. Almost immediately, Clementine begins to (literally) disappear from the memory as he chases after her. At first, Joel feels vindicated by this chance to go tit-for-tat and erase Clementine from his life. He pursues her through the remainder of the memory, proclaiming that it is a perfect ending, and that once she is gone, he will finally be happy.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Patrick reveals that after they erased Clementine’s memories, he sort of fell in love with her, and has been recreating the relationship she had with Joel in a horrifying effort to manipulate her into loving him back. Wood specializes at playing the weirdo in a way that (somehow) does not feel as aggressively ugly as his behavior, and he plays very well off of a young Ruffalo, who is all laid-back shrugs and nervous giggling. As Joel’s memories continue to disappear, Mary shows up to join her boyfriend for a night of dancing in their underwear and smoking pot, while Patrick sneaks off to be nearer to (the real) Clementine.
Soon enough, Joel begins to see so much of what made him fall for Clementine in the first place. Halfway through the procedure, he changes his mind, and wants it to stop. He is unsuccessful at waking himself, and in a further pivot into this strange world, he begins to conspire on how to preserve his memories by hiding Clementine in places she does not belong. “Try to think of a time before me,” she tells him.
While Kaufman is often the star behind the scenes, director Michael Gondry deserves an awful lot of credit for doing really great, understated work in bringing the script to life, particularly in the way he makes the absolute most out of a limited budget. Despite the high concept of the film, things remain grounded, even during the memory sequences. This is not to say that things are not strange, but Gondry works successfully to keep the focus on the emotional ride rather than any of his cinematic tricks. Jim Carrey plays hard against type, showing audiences what he is truly capable of when he wants to go dramatic. It is, in the opinion of this writer, a no-brainer for his finest work. Kate Winslet is similarly excellent, all sharp fucked up edges and manic anxiety. In lesser hands, the script might have settled for the one-dimensional versions of these characters, but in Kaufman’s script, they are much more. When Joel revisits one of his earliest memories of them, Clementine brilliantly defines, and then subverts the idea that she is nothing more than the MPDG of some man’s dreams; while Joel ‘s reaction reveals just as much about the sort of person he is, acting as a stand-in for every man in these types of films.
“Joel, I’m not a concept. Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them or I’m going to make them alive, but I’m just a fucked-up girl who is looking for my own piece of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”
“I remember that speech really well.”
“I had you pegged, didn’t I?”
“…I still thought you were going to save me. Even after that.”
Joel’s attempts to retain his memories result in the erasure getting off track, and Stan is forced to call in Dr. Mierzwiak. After the doctor arrives, Mary’s secret crush comes to a head. She makes her move at just about the time that Dr. Mierzwiak’s wife shows up to witness it, leading to a heartbreaking revelation that this has all happened before. As Joel falls in love all over again, he is not able to stop the procedure, as his attempts to hide Clementine only delay what he has set in motion. The final memory, their earliest, takes place in a secluded house on a beach in Montauk. It is heartbreaking to witness as all of Joel’s regrets and anxieties come to the surface as the ocean rushes in, the house literally crumbling around them.
When the procedure ends, Joel wakes up the next day and the film replays its opening scenes, as he gets out of bed and flees the train station to skip work and go to Montauk. The newly (re)discovered chemistry between the lovers comes to a sudden stop after Clementine opens up a letter (courtesy of a freshly disenchanted Mary) with a recording of her session detailing the reasons she decided to erase Joel. The pair listen in increasing confusion, and anger, until Joel kicks her out of his car. After a hysteric, then manic spell, she manages to track him down at his apartment, where he is listening to a similar tape, cowing and devastated.
Ultimately, the question on Kaufman’s mind seems to be what would be the effect if we could erase our unwanted memories? The film comes down pretty firmly on the side of this being a self-defeating process, as it is leads to the living embodiment of the phrase “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Even after hearing the tapes, Joel defends the way he feels by pointing out that he can’t see anything he does not like about her, to which Clementine points out the obvious:
“But you will, you will think of things and I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.”
With all of their baggage in tow (he is too boring, she too impulsive) they decide to give it another go, despite Clementine knowing how it will end, and Joel too lovesick to care. The emotional response to this reunification will depend largely on the eye of the viewer. To this writer, it feels sort of unbearably sad; whether Joel and Clementine are meant to be together is debatable (though to this writer, the answer is clear) but without the knowledge of what led to their initial failure, there is almost no hope for a happy ending, as they have no road-map to avoid ending up making the same mistakes.
In this writer’s opinion, what makes the film so enduring is the way it can be viewed so differently depending on the moment. It is bursting with ideas, and which of those stand out most is owed entirely to the attitude of the viewer. In constructing a top five series about break-up films*, Eternal Sunshine was the one this writer looked forward to the least, by far. It is undoubtedly a great film, but in the wake of my own painful separation, the thought of sitting through the entire film felt a lot like prodding a very raw nerve. With a bit of time (and hopefully, renewed perspective) having passed, it feels like a very different film, and one that is easier to enjoy. While it is no less sad, the sting feels a lot less familiar. To forget would be easy (and many people still seek ways to do that, even without erasure technology) but to do so is a denial of our most intimate experiences, an intrinsic part of what defines us, and for this writer, the film ultimately affirms that belief. Without attempting to truly understand, and in time, reconcile our hardships, there is no room to move forward. To remember is often difficult, but even the most painful memories (especially those) are essential. Without them, we are lost.