Charlie Kaufman has been exploring different layers of reality in his scripts for several years now – the question of Chuck Barris's CIA activities in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, John Malkovich learning that strangers are invading his head in Being John Malkovich, and in Adaptation, Kaufman forced to write himself into his own movie script when his ideas dry up. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind visits similar territory, but for all its mind-bending structure and intriguing questions of fate, it's far less assured than any of the former.
Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) have been in a relationship for two years, but it's falling apart. Clementine is tired of Joel's refusal to share his thoughts with her, instead putting them all down in a journal, while Joel is sick of Clementine's drinking, rash behaviour and general free-spiritedness, the very thing that drew him to her in the first place. After a final blazing row Clementine decides to have all traces of Joel wiped from her memory, a service offered by a mysterious company known as Lacuna Inc. Learning of this, a heartbroken Joel decides to undergo the same procedure.
Michel Gondry's film begins with a sequence that we presume is Joel and Clementine meeting for the first time, on a train traveling back into the city, but is in fact set several days after they've had their memories wiped. Gondry then moves back in time as Joel learns that he has been erased from Clementine's mind and the operatives of Lacuna Inc are introduced – nerdy technicians Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood), secretary Mary (Kirsten Dunst) and their kindly boss Howard (Tom Wilkinson). At night while Joel sleeps, Stan and Patrick set to work, removing every memory of Clementine. Gondry takes us back through their relationship as it is slowly erased, but half way through Joel realises that he has been too rash and attempts to conceal a single memory of Clementine from them.
For the bulk of the film, Gondry cuts between scenes within Joel's mind with those involving the Lacuna workers working in his apartment. Problem is, there's far too much of the former and not enough of the latter – Carrey and Winslet give strong, likable performances but Gondry is more concerned with showing how the relationship went wrong, not why it was so good in the first place. A monotony sets in as Joel dashes from one memory to the next in an attempt to 'hide' Clementine, and although there are some inspired moments - Joel leading her into buried embarrassments like the moment his mum caught him masturbating – it's all too reminiscent of the shorter, funnier sequence in Being John Malkovich when Malkovich enters his own head.
Conversely, there are far more interesting subplots involving the Lacuna team in the 'real' world. Creepy Patrick fell in love with Clementine while wiping her memory so sets about trying to woo her using what he has learnt about her via Joel, recycling romantic lines and giving her gifts once bestowed by her former love. It's like Groundhog Day with a stalker twist, but Kaufman and Gondry give the story frustratingly little space. Similarly, the crush that Mary clearly has on Howard develops into something unexpected, but in the end it's just a contrivance to give the film a too-neat pay off.
Gondry is a slick, clever director, and the transitions between memories are handled with visual aplomb. But I couldn't help escape the feeling that the material he's been given is too thin to support a two hour movie, no matter how many camera tricks the director has learnt through his years of music video production. Eternal Sunshine is a film about failed love and second chances, but it lacks the heart that such a film – no matter how bizarre – ultimately demands.
French musician-turned-film-maker who made his name directing innovative videos for the likes of Bjork, Massive Attack and The White Stripes, as well as a variety of TV commercials. His first feature film was 2001's surreal comedy Human Nature, written by Charlie Kaufman. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, co-written with Kaufman and starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, was his next project, a success that was not matched by The Science of Sleep which Gondry wrote himself. Be Kind Rewind was a charming comedy that only won cult acclaim, but superhero spoof The Green Hornet was a surprise hit in light of the grumpy reaction it received. Adaptation of cult novel Mood Indigo proved more difficult to find its audience, though coming of age yarn Microbe & Gasoline was more conventional.