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Charlie Kaufman must have been the cleverest kid in his high school, capable of impressing English teachers and fellow members of the Science Fiction Club alike with tales of the exotic alternate realities within the minds of everyday Americans. What might seem ingenious from a 15-year-old, however, is less impressive from a man 30 years older. In such widely celebrated films as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Kaufman examined the perversity of human consciousness with all the insight of a precocious teenager: Perceptions are deceitful; love is an illusion; everything is subjective.
If the ideas are simple, the scenarios never are. Yes, Being John Malkovich was about the possibility of taking a turn in a celebrity’s brain—but there was also puppetry, a building with a half-sized floor, psychic sex-change hijinks, and all too much more. Compared with his other scripts, which also include the strenuously whimsical Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the new Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is almost straightforward. That is, the plot is all over the place, but most of its detours further the central theme: the constancy of true love.
This topic, of course, might not even originate with the screenwriter. The movie’s basic story is credited jointly to Kaufman, Pierre Bismuth, and director Michel Gondry, a music-video veteran who previously filmed Kaufman’s least praised script, Human Nature—and who seems to have responded to criticisms of that movie’s flashiness by making Sunshine look like nothing much at all. But even if love’s endurance is Kaufman’s idea, that doesn’t mean he’s mellowed: His latest treatise presents eros less as a gift than a chronic malady.
And where there’s disease, there must be a doctor. First, though, we must meet the patients. Opening with a morning that’s the flip side of the perfect one that begins The Truman Show, Sunshine introduces the bedraggled, beleaguered Joel Barish (Jim Carrey). He makes his way to a Long Island Railroad platform to go to work, but then—on what appears to be a whim—hops a train in the wrong direction, to Montauk. There he spies a blue-haired, orange-sweat-shirted woman, who later introduces herself as Clementine Kruczynski, and also as a “vindictive little bitch.” Clementine (Kate Winslet) is as volatile as Joel is repressed, and it seems they could hardly be more wrong for each other. Soon they’re a couple.
Well, maybe not soon. Sunshine’s chronology is eventually untangled, but it’s best not to reveal too much of the film’s schema. Suffice it to say that at some point, Josh and Clementine split, and he then learns that she went to Lacuna Inc. to have her memories of the relationship erased. Angry, Josh heads to Lacuna’s office. Company founder Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson, soberly parodying the sort of authority-figure roles he often plays) is candid about the erasure. When Joel asks if it can cause brain damage, Howard replies, “Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage.”
Joel decides to have his knowledge of Clementine wiped, but during the operation, the unconscious patient changes his mind. The unexpected psychic resistance snarls the plans of Mierzwiak’s top eraser, Stan (Mark Ruffalo), to make out with the office’s receptionist, Mary (Kirsten Dunst), while the procedure is under way. And that’s not the only complication: Mary has—or is that had?—a conspicuous crush on one of the Lacuna crew, while another employee, the slightly creepy Patrick (Elijah Wood), is unethically using office files to woo a former patient.
Endings are always a problem in Kaufman-scripted movies, and Sunshine doesn’t break his streak of last-act letdowns. Another recurrent difficulty is that his quirky protagonists become grating long before he’s done with them. This time, Kaufman and his collaborators have created some engaging characters, but they all work at Lacuna. Each of the four memory-loss workers is sweetly befuddled in some way, and Dunst’s Mary actually proves poignant. (It’s she who recites a bit of “Eloisa to Abelard,” the Alexander Pope poem that provides the film’s title.) Indeed, the interplay between the quartet of recollection tinkerers is the only thing that keeps the battle within Joel’s head—as he mentally regresses to childhood in his attempt to keep his knowledge of Clementine—from turning into The Butterfly Effect II.
At the center of this semiphilosophical farce, however, are two of Kaufman’s dreariest characters. As Josh, the never-versatile Carrey spends most of his time straining to keep his manic side under control. Winslet, whose string of willful young women stretches from Sense and Sensibility to Hideous Kinky, here is given little more than changing hair colors with which to build Clementine’s disposition. And for all its self-conscious wackiness, Sunshine shows no more concern about the weak chemistry between its two lovers than any assembly-line Hollywood romantic comedy.
In addition to Pope, Mary also quotes Nietzsche, and it’s possible that Sunshine’s acceptance of romance’s inevitable disappointments was influenced by the philosopher’s idea of eternal recurrence: “My formula for greatness is…that one wants nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.” But perhaps not. (And maybe Chuck Barris really was a CIA assassin.) Confronted with Kaufman’s latest mind game, the most useful antecedent may not be a philosopher—or even a master of cinematic subjectivity such as Alain Resnais or Nicolas Roeg. Instead, Kaufman’s cerebral dabbling recalls James Thurber, who gave his study of ’30s pop psychology a title that remains excellent advice today: Let Your Mind Alone!
Neil Young has met the enemy, and he’s Bernard Shakey. Of course, Young buffs know that Shakey—previously credited with Journey Through the Past, Rust Never Sleeps, and Human Highway—is actually the singer-guitarist’s cinematic alter ego. Still, the director is clearly the weaker of the two artists principally responsible for Greendale, which is sort of Our Town for aging stoners.
In fuzzy color images that don’t look super enough for Super-8, the members of the Green clan engage in the usual activities of a family in the northern California hippie belt: They drink at the bar, feed the chickens, get busted for drug dealing, and protest the state’s blackouts.
There are a few communal choruses—including “A little love and affection/…Will make the world a better place” and “Save the planet for another day/Don’t care what the government say”—but the scenario comes to center on a single Green: voluptuous 18-year-old activist Sun (Sarah White), who uses hay to fashion a large anti-war symbol on a rolling hill and then chains herself to the gilded eagle in the lobby of Powerco.
Idealistic teenage girls good; electricity companies bad: That’s a message most Young fans can endorse, although one unlikely to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq or send “Kenny Boy” Lay to prison. Young’s brand of slacker-rock inspired plenty of ’80s and ’90s Amerindie types, but Greendale’s politics seem almost as antique as such early-’70s odes to the Revolution as Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship’s Blows Against the Empire.
That said, the movie makes the accompanying album look pretty good. Sure, the lyrics are simplistic, but compared with Greendale’s slapdash images, the music’s more than competent. It’s ragged and offhand, but energetic and reasonably
tuneful—the sort of song cycle that people who really like Young could sort of like. As for everyone else—well, Shakey recommends moving to Alaska. CP