- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is an experimental beau geste reuniting director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who first collaborated on 2002’s blithely nutty “Human Nature”). Ultimately, it’s easier to be disappointed than fascinated by the experiment’s fractured story continuities and hazy identities.

“Eternal Sunshine” stars Jim Carrey as Joel Barish. A gloomy, lovelorn illustrator, Joel is trapped in the limbo that separates a thwarted love affair from the possibility of starting over with the same estranged partner, Kate Winslet as a kook called Clementine, whose most distinctive trait is outlandish hair tints.

We first encounter Clementine in a Slurpyesque shade of blue when Joel impulsively decides to miss his commuter train to the city. Instead, he makes a dash for the train headed way out in the opposite direction, to Montauk. Clementine is also a passenger and strikes up a conversation that appears to be introductory, in an off-kilter way.

We discover that many impressions will be misleading after they return and the opening credits are belatedly inserted. At that point the prologue is revealed to have been an enigmatic tease, designed to place us at a chronological disadvantage. This same Clementine has already dumped Joel, terminating an affair that failed to measure up to still amorphous expectations. She has even taken the extreme neurological measure of effacing him from her memory, becoming the client of a crackpot clinic, Lacuna Inc., that makes a dubious speciality of zapping unwanted memories.

Joel, upon receiving a kind of cease-and-desist card notifying him of Clementine’s decision, enters Lacuna as an injured party and exits as another guinea pig, booked to have a reprisal treatment that purges his fickle sweetheart from his own mind. Lacuna’s brain-zapping methodology evidently requires an overnight vigil in the client’s home, attended by technicians named Stan and Patrick (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood, respectively), whose professionalism is highly suspect. Joel proves such a restless subject that a distress call goes out to their boss, Tom Wilkinson as Dr. Mierzwiak (pronounced “Mere-schwack”), a pioneer scrupulous or guilt-ridden enough to acknowledge that his therapy is a form of brain damage by definition.

During the long night of observing Joel’s “procedure,” it becomes clear that the technician and illusionist in Michel Gondry is stimulated by the prospect of maneuvering the protagonist through multiple states of awareness. He mixes dreams with the present and the past, transposing sets so cleverly from time to time that distant locales intersect. He creates an indoor rainstorm and collapses a beach house with a high tide. There’s one stunning throwaway image in which a figure with its back to the camera can’t be turned around to face us, despite repeated attempts.

The trouble with this display of virtuosity is that it never adheres securely to the characters invented for Mr. Kaufman’s script. Joel and Clementine, the ostensible romantic leads, remain nonentities despite all the elasticity and trickiness invested in Joel’s slumbering subconscious.

The promising romantic elements belong to the subplot, a triangle that places Kirsten Dunst as Mary Svevo, the sunny receptionist at Lacuna, between smitten Stan and the esteemed Dr. Mierzwiak. As a comic bonus, Mr. Wood’s twerpy Patrick is trying to make time with an unwitting Clementine by stealing endearments that originated with Joel.

Incongruously, Mark Ruffalo is the best comedy performer in the ensemble. His disarming gallantry — and the fact that his sweetness harmonizes with Miss Dunst’s ingenious appeal as Mary — allows Stan to sneak up on you as the suitor to root for in this collection of oddballs. There’s something about Mary and Stan that isn’t clicking with Clem and Joel.

The proliferation of Charlie Kaufman scenarios, from “Being John Malkovich” to “Human Nature” to “Adaptation” to “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and now “Eternal Sunshine,” make it more difficult to regard the latest variation as a fresh one. His affinity for brain-invading losers and wreckers has grown overfamiliar. Skimping on characterization is the real sore point.

It won’t be necessary to hire Lacuna to erase memories of Jim Carrey as Joel and Kate Winslet as Clementine. They’re already programmed for rapid memory loss.

*1/2

TITLE: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor; allusions to drug use; sustained ominous overtones)

CREDITS: Directed by Michel Gondry. Written by Charlie Kaufman. Cinematography by Ellen Kuras. Production design by Dan Leigh. Costume design by Melissa Toth. Music by Jon Brion

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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