Thursday, December 1, 2011
Day 1: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
"I had you pegged, didn't I?"
"You had the whole human race pegged."
It's hard for me to objectively review a movie with a character after whom I named my daughter. I have a long history with this movie. I saw it the night it opened and I wasn't entirely sure what I thought of it immediately afterwards. 24 hours later, I couldn't stop thinking about it and wanted to see it again. This time I brought Rachel and Jon Taylor with me. We all went again the next night and brought Sarah Drinkard with us. I subsequently saw it 4 more times in the theaters. Love is not a strong enough word for what I feel for this film. I think it is brilliant. In fact, in re-watching it to write this review, I took very few notes and found myself just getting lost in it all over again.
The first thing I noticed this time was the cover art. There's a quote from Peter Travers of Rolling Stone who dubbed the film "A Smart, Sexy and Seriously Funny Comedy." Alliteration aside, I agree with all of that except the last word. I have always had a hard time classifying this film, but it is most certainly not a comedy. Yes, it is funny and has a lot of comedy in it, but this film is not a comedy. It's a tragedy of the highest order, and you need look no further than the very last image of the film which is a repeated loop of Joel and Clementine running on the beach. To me, this signifies that perhaps it's not the hopeful, happy ending we had just seen with the two of them deciding to give their relationship another go. They're stuck in a vicious cycle, and will likely go through this same thing multiple times.
The plot is fairly straight-forward, boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl fall out of love, girl has procedure to erase boy from her memory, boy finds out, has same procedure, boy and girl meet again, and the whole thing starts all over again. Jim Carrey plays Joel, the boy in this scenario, and he is unbelievably effective as an actor when playing a normal schmoe. This isn't just his best performance, it's the best performance by a famous actor playing an average joe ever. There's a very simple reason for this; Jim Carrey the person has been very unlucky in love in his real life. He's been through several very public relationships and is someone who very clearly has known both love and loss, and the heights and depths that those two emotions bring with them. He lays this all bare on screen and the film and his performance are so much the better for it.
The girl is Clementine, played by Kate Winslet. I've always been a fan of hers, mainly because she has a history of making otherwise unwatchable films entertaining by her thorough commitment to playing her purpose, and there's no lack of that here. She is endlessly watchable as a damaged soul who puts up a strong front, but is just as scared of having her heart broken as the much more meager Joel. Kate is another actor who has had some very public relationships end badly, and she too brings that baggage with her to this character, and this makes her Carrey's equal in every way on screen. The second glance she gives Patrick after he gives her the necklace he pilfered from Joel's stuff is one example of her doing something with next to nothing.
Among the supporting cast, everyone is uniformly good, among them Tom Wilkinson as Howard, the doctor who pioneered the memory erasure technique, Kirsten Dunst as Mary, his secretary with a crush on her boss, Elijah Wood as Patrick, a kid working at the lab who is obsessed with Clementine, Jane Adams and David Cross as Joel's friends Carrie and Rob & especially Mark Ruffalo as Stan, the technician doing the erasing. Ruffalo is so good in what could have easily been a thankless write-off of a character, but he infuses him with so many tics and character traits that he's eminently watchable and the driving force of the scenes that don't involve Clementine and Joel.
Charlie Kaufman's script is unbelievably good. It's the kind of script that, as a writer, makes me want to throw my hands up in the air and give up writing altogether because I'll never create anything so honest and groundbreaking. With this being only his second feature, director Michel Gondry has yet to equal this film in anything he's done subsequently, although I have enjoyed all of his films, particularly The Science of Sleep and Be Kind, Rewind. His technique is exemplary and he uses such low-tech post-production effects and ancient in-camera effects in a way that makes them seem revolutionary and new. His scene transitions are great (particularly Joel leaving the bookstore and ending up in his friend's living room), and the use of the erasure sound effect to transition from memory to memory is also a subtle but effective storytelling device.
I have read the script to this and it's easy to see Gondry's contributions to the story on screen, but the framework Kaufman provided him with is so solid, seemingly nothing could detract from it's overall impact. For a film that relies so heavily on handheld camera, Gondry manages to brilliantly capture small moments like the aforementioned look that Clementine gives Patrick, and the looks Howard gives Stan anytime Mary pays him a compliment. This gives the film an immediacy, but it's clearly not accidental and must have been meticulously choreographed, making it just that much better.
The use of music, both songs and the score, is also notable. In particular the scene on the train at the beginning with Joel and Clementine meeting again for the first time, the way that Jon Brion's score is used under all of their dialogue, and then taken out entirely when they're not speaking, is pure genius. The score is so emotional because of its simplicity. A simple piano melody used in the scenes from Joel's childhood and the last memory we see from the day Joel and Clementine actually met, is infinitely more effective than a swelling orchestra. I'm including a link to the last memory he has of Clementine. Out of context it still manages to pack a pretty emotional punch, particularly the way Joel says "I love you" at the very end of the clip. This scene makes me bawl and I'm not ashamed to admit it. It's a perfect example of writing, directing, acting and scoring all working together to elicit an emotional response from the viewer and hell if it isn't effective.
If I have one complaint about the film, it's a small one, but one that I actually held against the film after my first viewing. It's the tapes that are made by the people having the erasure procedure and are then kept on file. This is a plot device at it's most basic and it literally serves no other purpose than to let Mary, Joel & Clementine in on their past lives. It bugged me a lot the first time I saw the film, and it still kind of bothers me to some extent, but I'm not going to presume to be smarter than Charlie Kaufman and say that there's a better way to have done it. Part of loving something or someone is acknowledging their flaws, no matter how big or small, and loving them through them, not in spite of them.
Overall, this is not really a review, because I can't be partial. I am unabashedly in love with this movie. In the future, I will balance reviews like this with more critical ones. What are your thoughts? I open the floor to anyone who has an opinion good or bad about the movie or my review. My next film will be Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz' 2009 follow-up to Happiness. Also, see below for the link to the clip I mentioned before. I also welcome your comments and suggestions.