What if you could erase the memories of the woman who broke your heart? Or any memories at all? The memories of your children, who have abandoned you or been tragically killed? The memories of your beloved pet? Maybe even the memories of that awful root canal? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind only answers the first question, but it does so with understated realism and sincerity.
Yes, this is hardly a novel speculative fiction concept, even by the standards of current filmmakers. Yet Eternal Sunshine imbues this idea with something so few movies do: story. It is a sad state of affairs that major movie releases have chosen style over substance. Remember the last two Matrix films? Remember any Arnold Schwarzenegger movie of the last twenty years? It is a sadder state that reviewers have to continually remind viewers of this. It is the saddest state of affairs that editors of some major magazines, despite intense protestations to the contrary, have also chosen style over story. Perhaps they are merely catering to their readership or, worse, some perceived demographic, but it makes this reviewer throw their magazines at the wall. I say this because it is the stance of said magazines that their stories are better than anything produced by Hollywood, and Eternal Sunshine proves just how wrong they are.
Joel Barish, played by a remarkably subdued and earnest Jim Carrey, meets Clementine Kruczynski, a wonderfully loopy Kate Winslet, on a Montauk Beach. But after this simple opening act, the timeline -- not to mention the line between reality and imagination -- gets a bit blurry.
It turns out that these star-crossed lovers erased each other from their respective memories after their relationship has self-destructed. Are they destined for one another? Is there such a thing as a soul mate? I'd like to think so, but this movie, to its credit, does not reach for the lofty heights of fairy tales. Rather, it revels in the painful uncertainty that characterizes real relationships.
The story turns to Joel seeking Clementine to make amends when he discovers that she has erased him from her memories at a business known as Lacuna. (Get it?) He then finds the doctor, played by Tom Wilkinson, who has done this and discovers that there is, of course, nothing he can do. So, in an act of revenge as much as an attempt at happiness, he has her erased from his memories.
Curiously, and again to the writer's and director's credits, the movie does not focus on the nifty machinery of memory erasure. Instead, we learn that the subject is to collect all of the artifacts associated with the person (or whatever) to be erased, and then has what appears to be an MRI scan. This is when I fell in love with Eternal Sunshine, when it flouts convention. The doctor's office is not the enormous eye-dazzling white and shiny chrome building associated with so many SF movies (think The Sixth Day or Minority Report) but is a battered office space not unlike most dentist's or doctor' s offices. Once the MRI (or whatever scan it is) is taken, the subject is sent home, where he receives a narcotic in the mail. He or she takes this, and that night two technicians enter the home, set up shop, and erase the memories. The theory is that the patient will wake up in his or her own bed without even the memory of being erased.
The movie does not delve into the ethics of this procedure, nor the legality, nor such details as the possibility of meeting someone who knows the someone who's been erased. If you erase your ex-wife, what happens when your neighbor asks how she is? It would have been interesting if this had been explored, but it would have burdened the movie with far too much and distracted from the thrust of the story.
The basic plot device of most such stories is "what can go wrong?" In this case, what if the patient, asleep but aware in his dreams of the procedure, decides that he wants to back out? Why Joel wants to retain his memories is never explained, but it doesn't need to be. It assumes that you already know that our memories are what make us who we are.
So, Joel and Clementine strive to hide his memories of her in a place that has not been mapped on the computers so that when he does wake, he will remember her. These hiding places are painful or embarrassing memories, the kind that we hope never to remember. This opens up some comic possibilities, and does make a few attempts at humor, but largely this film is without any meaningful comic relief. That is about its only significant failure, though I am grateful that Carrey refrains from doing his shtick. These attempts at hiding her also produce a few moments of rather disturbing images, some sexual and some cruel. In the process, we learn how Joel and Clementine first met, how they fell in love, and what went wrong. Really, this is a very simple story about courtship and love, and the how the frailties of ordinary men and women affect their relationships.
But this is not the only story. The two technicians, Patrick and Stan, played by Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo, are hardly responsible members of society. They drink and smoke pot while they are erasing Joel's memories, and discuss the ethics of dating someone they've erased. Elijah Wood is wonderfully creepy, a nice change from his goody-two-shoes Frodo. (I own the extended DVD versions, just so there's no confusion as to how I feel about the trilogy.) Then when Stan's girlfriend Mary, played by Kirsten Dunst, who is also the receptionist at Lacuna, arrives, all hell breaks loose. After Patrick leaves, for reasons I won't divulge, Stan and Mary dance on Joel's bed, eat his food and drink his liquor, smoke pot, then have sex. Again, this is such a wonderful contrast to the white-robed, uptight, undeveloped characters shuffling around the white and chrome buildings seen in too many SF movies. These are real people, though they may not be people you would want to know, who are not really interested in the incredible technology at their fingertips. Well, that's not entirely true. But you'll have to see it to see what I mean. At least there's no gosh-wowing by some outsider to the technology who is little more than a stand-in for the audience.
The end provides a neat little twist that explores, very quickly and simply, the potential for abuse. It might have a movie unto itself, but instead is used with such minimalist strokes that I was astonished at the depths to which it spoke. Doubtless there are some who would think it's too neat.
Oh, and Mary's final act is too neat, though necessary to the story, for a movie that revels in flouting convention. The end, the real end, is really a question rather than an answer, and that is how good SF films should be.
Copyright © 2004 Sean Melican
Sean Melican is a stay-at-home-dad slash adjunct professor slash Clarion graduate. He wishes he had stories to promote in his bio. He is currently reading Neil Peart's Ghost Rider -- Travels on the Healing Road and Ellen Datlow's anthology The Dark.