- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

LOS ANGELES — Jim Carrey is talking about something that makes him stutter. “Ah, the thing about this movie is, it’s about l-l-l-l. It’s about l-l-lugh.”What he’s trying to say is the L-word, the universal language thingy that he experiences in much-publicized fits and starts.

Love, in a word.

Remember the ugly divorce from prefame wife Melissa Womer? The tabloid-apalooza of a second marriage to hottie Lauren Holly, which lasted about five minutes, heated up again and then fell into a permanent freeze?

Oh, and there were the now-you-see-‘em-now-you-don’t romantic sparks with “Me, Myself & Irene” leading lady Renee Zellweger.

Jim Carrey, now 42, has struggled to make an honest man of Jim Carrey. He’ll be the first one to tell you, honestly: He’s kind of a shallow dude.

“I’ve never had it, a love without that feeling of a little bit of compromise,” he says at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel, where he’s promoting his latest serious-star turn in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

“I don’t know if you can,” he adds. “I’ve experienced moments of it, like, ‘This is absolute. I’m sure, I’m sure, I’m sure.’ But Mr. Doubt always comes and knocks at the door going, ‘Her head’s kinda big.’”

In his “Truman Show”/”Man on the Moon”/”Majestic” mode — funny, but not antically funny — Mr. Carrey plays an introverted New Yorker who learns that Clementine, his girlfriend of two years, has undergone a procedure to erase all memory of their ever knowing each other.

In retaliation, his character does the same. Midway through, however, he finds himself resisting the erasure, subconsciously realizing his heart hadn’t yet given up on the memories downloading from his head.

Working from a typically mind-altered screenplay from smarty-pants Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”), the surrealist director Michel Gondry (“Human Nature,” various rock videos) turns the process into a deliciously clunky science-fiction conceit.

We watch as Mr. Carrey’s Joel Barish traipses through his psyche, his memories decaying through low-tech illusions of lighting and camera trickery.

Having jumped at the chance to work on a Charlie Kaufman script with an avant-garde French director, Mr. Carrey left Los Angeles in January 2003 a relatively happy man.

Then he arrived in New York for principal photography. Things changed. The role, he found out, would demand a seriously personal investment of emotion.

“I had to sit there and peel the scabs off and go, ‘Ooh, I remember that.’ I wanted to express a lot of anger and resentment of old hurts,” he says.

“What ended up happening — and I’m really thankful it ended up happening — is that when it was all put together, it became like a love letter to everybody I’ve loved.”

Kate Winslet, who plays Clementine, remembers Mr. Carrey retreating to a corner on the set, wearing a pensive, Method-man game face.

“I have a vision of him drinking water and fiddling with the top of the bottle, thinking something through,” she says.

“He’s a very regular guy, actually,” Miss Winslet adds. “He isn’t funny all the time. He has a very sensitive side. He’s very private.”

Jim Carrey — regular, sensitive and private?

Elijah Wood, who has a supporting role in the movie, noticed the same thing. “I expected him to be completely extroverted all the time, but I think there are a lot of layers to Jim that I don’t even know about,” he says.

Mr. Kaufman, who insists he never writes with particular actors in mind, initially had his doubts. “He called and said he wanted to do the movie. I like Jim Carrey, but my first reaction was, ‘I don’t know. I don’t see it,’” he says.

“But when I met him for the first time, at the rehearsal, he was very quiet and very present and very gentle.”

Jim Carrey — regular, sensitive, private, quiet and gentle?

Mr. Gondry spotted this anti-“Ace Ventura” during the filming of last year’s “Bruce Almighty,” in which Mr. Carrey, playing a news anchor filling in for a vacationing God, made the usual Jim Carrey moves: limber physical gags, facial contortions, supersized personality.

Mr. Gondry recalls watching Mr. Carrey between takes. He says, “He wasn’t being the character; he was just being Jim. For some reason, I saw a difference. I thought, ‘OK, that’s the Jim I want for this movie.’”

The Jim he got for “Eternal Sunshine” was a Jim subdued, we may presume, by thoughts of Melissa, Lauren, Renee and other ghosts of romances past.

As Mr. Carrey puts it, “I was pouring a lot of whatever I’ve gone through into it.”

Something like this had happened before. Mr. Carrey’s behavior during the filming of “Man on the Moon” in 1999 has become Hollywood lore. He so completely threw himself into the role of the late comedian-actor Andy Kaufman that he stayed in character off-set.

Even after the movie was completed, Mr. Carrey hadn’t fully shaken off the Kaufman persona.

This time, however, it was more personal. The seeming mismatch between quiet, bookish Joel and chatty, People-magazine Clementine looked like the imperfections he can’t help noticing in mates. Joel’s baggage felt familiar.

“You can’t help falling in love,” he says. “It comes from a different side of your brain than the logic part that tells you, ‘This person is horrible for you. You should walk away.’

“That’s kind of the real magic. The thing about this movie is, ‘You accept the flaws, you accept what was wrong and you move on. You love the person for who they are, flaws and all.’ It’s romantic without being romanticized. It’s real love. It’s love that goes, ‘You are ugly to me sometimes, and I love you.’”

Jim Carrey, finally, is a pragmatist. People fall in love, they fall out of love.

“Everybody expects that fairy tale, you know? You’re gonna be together forever with somebody. I don’t really subscribe to that. I’d love for that to happen, but 10 years is enough,” he says.

“A lot of good love can happen in 10 years.”

After that, there are always the memories.

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