[Our Sunday Visitor, March 21, 2004]
The term "high concept" refers to a movie with a striking plotline that can be described in one sentence (eg, Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwartznegger are long-lost "Twins"). In high-concept movies things explode. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman specializes in another kind of high-concept movie, one in which a strange premise unfolds in surreal ways. Things don’t explode; they melt, like Dali’s watch.
His first film, "Being John Malkovich" (1999) sought to answer the perennial question, "What would it be like if a secret door in my office led to a ride inside John Malkovich’s brain?" as well as the obvious followup, "Could I make money selling these rides?" (And you thought you were the only one wondering about that.) "Adaptation" (2002) gave us boxes inside boxes: Charlie Kaufman was hired to adapt the book "The Orchid Thief," and turned in a script about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman trying to adapt the book "The Orchid Thief." Charlie is a sad sack who can’t complete the job, immobilized as he is by lofty artistic standards that resist crowd-pleasers like plot, character, and a conclusion. Finally his (imaginary) brother Donald Kaufman takes over and supplies a Hollywood-style ending.
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" has as its strongest element a succinct concept: a company named Lacuna, Inc., can erase past painful memories, for example those of a lost love. (A nifty element of the film’s publicity is a convincingly realistic website for Lacuna, Inc., including a self-test to see if you’d benefit from memory erasure.) Heartbroken Joel (Jim Carrey) decides to undergo the process, and then changes his mind in midstream; in the surreal realm of dreams he fights to hold onto memories of Clementine (Kate Winslet) so he can find her again when he awakes.
Joel is a shlub, a shy, worried fellow, somewhat depressed and somewhat wrinkled, who likes people who are "nice." (Yes, they cast Jim Carrey in this role). Clementine (Kate Winslet) is a terror, a woman at least a decade younger who is angry and flirtatious, unrelentingly self-centered, and a heavy drinker. If Americans think the most shameful condition for a man is depression and for a woman is alcoholism, Kaufman has scored a twofer. These two strike up a relationship-it would be a stretch to say "fall in love"— and all you want is rescue poor Joel from this dangerous, destructive woman.
Winslet deserves applause for her courageous portrayal of Clementine, a character whom we never have any reason to trust. Carrey does fine in a role that is, for him, unusually subdued, though he never moves us to love this generally bland character. Elijah Wood appears as a Lacuna employee who falls in love with Clementine. Most interesting was Tom Wilkinson as Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, founder of Lacuna, Inc. The usual line calls for this person to combine oily ingratiation with the delusions of a mad scientist. Howard instead is the most grounded, authentic character in the movie, and appears to be genuinely compassionate (more so than he appears in the movie ads, for some reason). This is a problem, actually. He’s the most likeable person in the movie, and the movie is not about him.
What steals the scene is the scenery. Once Joel is asleep and decides that he wants to resist the erasure of Clementine’s memories, he cuts back and forth through time inside his own head, trying to find a place where he and she can hide until the procedure is over. Thus we have rain falling inside his apartment, which turns into the back yard of his childhood, and a cartoonish scene in which he hides under the kitchen table as a four-year-old. As the relentless process destroys his memories of Clementine, we see him walk with her down streets where the signs are going blank, stand in a bookstore where the covers are turning white, hesitate in a beach house while it crumbles around him.
These are extraordinary effects, visually rich, and so fluid that it is impossible to savor them all. But since they could all be filed under "surreal dream sequence," they have an essential sameness. During this part of the movie nothing is happening to advance the plot; we’re in limbo. For roughly an hour we have the equivalent of Joel and Clementine running through a tunnel holding hands.
What happens when they come out? The movie ends, but without much having happened. Joel has not changed and neither has Clementine, and there is still no reason for them to be together. It turns out that there’s a reason satisfying stories show characters that grow, a plot that enables them to, and a conclusion that draws it all together. We don’t need to watch aimless, confused people dither their lives away. People know how to do that already. What storytelling has done, from time immemorial, is to show characters who either find a way to make their lives make sense, or fail movingly. It’s not selling out to write a screenplay that answers this human hunger. We spend enough time stumbling in the mist of dreams.