Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) has a clever idea for a plot that is executed by a rather oddball crew of artists. In the director’s chair you have Michel Gondry, a French filmmaker whose creativity is always recognisable no matter the project. On writing duties you have Charlie Kaufman, known for writing screenplays that seem to take on a life of their own. Then in front of the camera you have Jim Carrey in serious mode, which doesn’t always work, but the results are always interesting.
When the movie came out I was still used to the idea of Jim Carrey as a manic comedian since I grew up watching him in movies like Ace Ventura and The Mask. When he is in a drama you almost always expect him to eventually burst out and talk out of his butt. That might be why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is not one of his biggest box-office successes, but even 13 years ago I could see this is a very smart movie dealing with deep ideas. Its characters are all convinced that in order to move on with their lives they should use technology to erase bad memories from their consciousness, an idea I sometimes find appealing. However Kaufman and Gondry seem to argue removing memories is akin to removing the symptoms and not the disease.
Carrey’s character, Joel Barrish, is a shy and withdrawn man who had the luck of meeting Clementine (Kate Winslet), the kind of extrovert who dyes her hair blue and approaches strangers on a train. They had a great relationship for a while until things unfortunately soured and ended with a bitter breakup. Things were so bitter that one day Joel runs into Clementine and she has no memories of him because she had them erased by a medical firm out of New York City.
Feeling betrayed, Joel decided to scrub Clementine out of his mind just like she did and never have to relive the painful memory of their breakup. He has worries of course. When going over the procedure with Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) he asks about the possibility of brain damage, to which the good doctor replies: “Well, technically the procedure is brain damage, but it’s on par with a night of heavy drinking.” Well gee, isn’t comforting?
Yet Joel agrees to the procedure and at night technicians played by Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo come into his house to plug all manners of electrical devices into his head while he sleeps. This is when the movie starts to get visually creative as it jumps around Joel’s memory as the technicians erase all traces of Clementine. What Joel hadn’t thought about before signing off on this brain-damaging operation is that the technicians are also erasing the good memories of Clementine, which he realises he would like to keep so he starts to fight the procedure. Meanwhile, back in the real world, we see the technicians are having relationship problems of their own and that this technology might not be a perfect solution for heartbreak after all.
Getting inside a person’s brain allows Gondry and his team to have all sorts of fun, whether it’s having people completely vanish from a scene, jumping to Joel’s childhood, or Joel running into a faceless man because he only remembers seeing that man from behind. Over the years plenty of TV shows and movies have surpassed this concept, especially Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which has characters dig three layers deep into a person’s subconscious. However Gondry’s film still holds up both in terms of visual effects and ideas.
By the movie’s end most of the characters have come to the realization that erasing some of your bad memories is not going to make you feel any better or change who you are as a person. The old saying “those who do not learn history are bound to repeat it” seems to apply to people’s personal history as well.