Breakups are more interesting than love stories. It's a truth few Hollywood movies are willing to acknowledge, but one wisely and poignantly explored in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which opens Friday, March 19, at the Meridian and other theaters). Since the screenplay comes from Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Human Nature), you know it's going to be clever, and it is. But it's also warm and affecting (not clinical, like the one-note Nature), cast and acted in a manner that completely defeats any trace of intellectual pretense. It's a heart trip and a head trip all at the same time.
Jim Carrey plays Joel, an office-worker drone so stifled by his routine that the last two years of his cartoon journal/diary are blank. Kate Winslet plays Clementine, a bookstore-clerk drone from the same LIE exit whose hobby seems to be dyeing her hair a different hue every other week, if not daily. They're complete opposites in personality: He's shy, glum, and withdrawn; she's manic and lively. What they have in common is depression, a vague but enveloping feeling of being under-actualized, as if, yes, something's missing from their lives. They meet one day when each separately but impulsively decides to play hooky from work, taking the train out to the snowy beach at Montauk on the tip of Long Island.
At this point in Mind, I began grinding my teeth in annoyance at the meet-cute, opposites-attract formula being set in motion. Fortunately, Kaufman and director Michel Gondry take that cliché as a leap into the cerebral unknown. Joel's reality begins to swiftly collapse once he and Clementine return home. In fact, you could say that the movie doesn't really begin until about 15 minutes in, when the opening credits appear. After Joel's been knocked for an emotional wallop, we get knocked, too, but in a temporal sense, and Mind begins to loop back on itself like some kind of Möbius strip inside the poor guy's noggin.
Soon Joel finds himself knocking on the door of a seedy-looking business called Lacuna. What does it do? Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson of In the Bedroom) puts it gently to Joel: "Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage." Naturally, Joel signs up right away for Dr. M's services, intending to have Clementine permanently removed from his memory. (Like the out-of-body-device in Malkovich, here's the somewhat surreal severance from reality.) Every mnemonic token of Joel's past with Clementine is lumped inside garbage bags. Dr. M studies the contents, and a cognitive "map" is drawn like an MRI diagram overlaid with glowing little sparks. Those flares, like distant stars in the mind's universe, represent all of Clementine's occurrences within Joel's consciousness. Each is a physical presence, a neurochemical trace that Dr. M's minions will zap like video-game foes or bad computer code.
Can love really be erased by surgical intervention? Well—as you can imagine Professor Kaufman demanding of terrified undergraduates as he paces before the classroom, eraser clenched in hand—what is love if not memory? Aren't they both neurochemical constructs within the brain? Aren't they in fact the same thing? From all we know about neurons, synapses, hormones, pheromones, and serotonin reuptake inhibitors, all consciousness, all feeling is reducible to chemistry. And the brain is just a big, sloshing vat of chemicals. What Dr. M is promising to do for Joel is to pluck out a few volatile ingredients, and equilibrium will be restored.
Needless to say, Dr. M's procedure doesn't go as planned, and Joel finds himself on the run within a sort of intercranial chase-movie construct. Mind abruptly jumps genres; but the less said about that, the better. The plot takes a lot more teasing to unscramble than Malkovich. You've got to figure out where the movie starts (hint: not at the beginning, no way); you've got to figure out Joel and Clementine's relationship (it goes back); and then there's the matter of elective brain surgery performed by a couple of beer-swilling mooks who are essentially holding a party in the operating theater of Joel's dingy Rockville Center apartment. This inept duo consists of Mark Ruffalo (much nicer than in In the Cut) and Elijah Wood (not so nice as in the LOTR cycle), abetted by Dr. M's receptionist (Kirsten Dunst in wilted-flower mode). All of them are as flawed and needy as Joel and Clementine.
The rather jarring shift in tone and structure in the movie's second half is reminiscent of Adaptation. Yet Mind is a better and richer film because the characters aren't such pawns—there are no bogus tears shed for a twin brother who didn't exist. Kaufman isn't treating his creations like lab rats in some mad-scientist screenplay.
Maybe this is the influence of Gondry, a French music-video savant, or maybe Kaufman is mellowing and maturing as a writer, or maybe it's a combination of all that plus their stars. Carrey, the most physically gifted clown of his generation, is marvelously restrained. In most of his broad comedies, he lunges at the audience; here, he sags, so we sympathetically reach out to him. Winslet, initially the annoying, overgrown teen, develops more once we venture inside Joel's head; her Clementine is the loose-wire personality who politely apologizes before electrocuting everyone she touches. She and Joel are all wrong for each other, the movie seems to be saying; they made each other miserable. Theirs is a relationship that should never have happened, yet Mind ends up being a wonderfully optimistic and affirmative film. Sometimes bad memories can be the best place to start.