Check to see if Hell has frozen over, if there are flocks of pigs flying overhead, if theres a rip in the space/time continuum, because I’ve seen something that I was sure would never happen: Jim Carrey giving a mature, nuanced performance that is both genuinely affecting and deeply moving. That grail that he has been seeking, and missing, with films like THE MAJESTIC, has manifested itself without his usual hyper shtick or maudlin schmaltz. Where has this Jim Carrey been hiding all these years and why did he wait so long to appear?
Is it the alchemy of writer Charles Kaufman (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, HUMAN NATURE, ADAPTATION) and director Michel Gondry (HUMAN NATURE)? Whatever it was, he adds an ineffable sweet sadness to this complex tale of love found, lost, and then rediscovered in Kaufman’s suitably novel way. Anything less than novel and complex from Kaufman would be unutterably disappointing.
Carrey is Joel, who starts the film on Montauck, New York’s windswept beach just after Valentine’s Day. The cold he’s experiencing is more than just physical. It’s been two years since he’s had the wherewithal to make an entry in his journal, his live-in girlfriend is gone, he finds it impossible to make eye contact with any woman that he doesn’t already know. Hence the post Valentine’s Day depression has sunk its gnarly claws deep into the farthest recesses of his soul. Suddenly, theres Clementine (Kate Winslet), a sometimes blue-haired wild child and self-described vindictive bitch who gloms onto Joel in a coffee shop and won’t leave him in peace until they’ve gotten married and had sex, not necessarily in that order, that same day.
As these things do, it falls apart. There’s a fight and then the mysterious note from a company called Lacuna, informing the recipient that Clementine has just had all memory of Joel erased and to please not mention him to her again. Fortunately, this crushing blow is also the way out of Joel’s dilemma. The cure is just a memory wipe away. The catch, and anything this good has to have one, is that in order to have the memories erased, the erasee, as explained by the avuncular Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), has to relive each and every one of them in reverse order so that the whiz-bang gizmo, the one that looks like a colander on steroids, can cherry pick them out of his or her psyche. Once Joel starts the process, under the regulation heavy sedation, reliving his life with Clementine, he remembers why he loved her, and, well, he changes his mind. Unfortunately, it’s too late. Theres no way to get the word to Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and nebbishy Patrick (Elijah Wood), the ethically challenged technicians cleaning the slate while raiding Joel’s fridge and partying down with Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Dr. Mierzwiak’s bubbly receptionist. Unable to stop the process, Joel plots with his dream Clementine to store her in a memory where she shouldn’t be, setting off unheard alarms on the machinery as the party in real time progresses from beer, to whiskey, to pot, to orgy, as Joel sets off on the Platonic ideal of the fully examined life as he strolls down memory lane.
Kaufman makes the gusty decision to laud not the starry-eyed first flush of new love, but instead to exalt as the best, the most satisfying and at the same time the most dangerous part of any relationship, the point when the rose-colored glasses fall from those eyes and are trampled underfoot in the dust. And there’s another gutsy decision in taking a chance on Carrey, who has not found much favor with his attempts at drama. Even in those moments in the script where Carrey’s manic overacting might work, a visit to his days as a four-year-old, for example, he plays it in a lower key. Kudos to director Michel Gondry for keeping him in check. Further kudos to him and to Kaufman for taking a surreal story and imbuing it with very real emotion. Even with the trademark touches of pure oddity, Clementine’s collection of potatoes that shes dressed up in costumes, this story never strays from its serious consideration of the inevitability of love, and why that is not the same thing as a fairy tale ending. We have, instead, a history fraught both with great farce and equally great tragedy.
As for the structure of the film itself, it is an enormous leap of faith in the audience. The story unfolds not in the chronological order of real life, but rather in the deliciously chaotic free-association of the emotional mind. The beginning, with Joel on that beach in Montauk, well, make no assumptions. Joel’s mind is a place where all things can happen at once, people come and go in the blink of an eye, and where houses crumble physically even as relationships do metaphorically. It’s also where there is finally a chance for Joel to focus on what Clementine meant to him as distinct from what she did that sometimes made him crazy. Even action in the real world takes on the fluidity of pure thought, with Joel telling a sad story to his sister and her husband and moving from their living room to the scene of the crime and back again in what seems like just a few paces.
THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, a line from Pope extolling the joys of blissful ignorance, dares to disagree with Pope’s premise and convincingly make the case. Love is messy, love is pain, love doesn’t always work out, but love is, against all reason, somehow worth it.