I’m sure we’ve all, at one time or the other, come across this situation: someone comes back after a concert, a movie, or any event you’re interested in, and instead of talking about the event, they go off on a tangent about how bad the parking was, or the weird guy who sat next to them, while you’re sitting there with the slowly dawning feeling that you aren’t going to ever find out about the concert itself. Watching Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind left me with similar feelings.
Eternal… is by no means a terrible movie; the concept of a person erasing people from their memories is fascinating, and seen from the mind’s eye of its protagonist, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), it takes the form of a trippy, non-linear romp through his memories as all traces of his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) are slowly and methodically wiped away.
The special effects in these scenes are top notch. As someone who knows some of the technical side of things, let me tell you, doing special effects on a moving camera shot is a nightmare. Eternal… employs a lot of handheld camera-work, and yet each subtle effect, be it a car literally disassembling out of existence, or the covers of thousands of books disappearing to white, is handled flawlessly.
The screenplay (By Charlie Kaufman, from a story by Gondry, Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth) itself, however, is less impressive, and doesn’t live up to the high standard of its premise. Joel and Clementine were pretty close, now they’ve broken up, and Clementine has had the memory of Joel erased from her. Joel decides, then, to do the same to her, i.e. have her erased from his brain. The rest of the film follows Joel on the night that the procedure takes place, and intercuts with the team performing the procedure on him.
(some Spoilers follow)
It is this subplot that I found more interesting than Joel and Clementine’s love story. There are some very intriguing characters here, and nearly all of them are wasted. Firstly, there is Patrick (Elijah Wood), an assistant at the clinic who — it is revealed early on — is using Joel’s discarded memorabilia of Clementine to woo her, replaying Joel’s words and memories. Patrick’s character, despite being worthy of an entire movie on his own (a man who steals other people’s memories for romantic gain) serves no purpose other than seeming a bit creepy, and giving us a look at post-procedure Clementine and how she’s not coping very well.
Then there’s Mary (Kirsten Dunst, in Eternal‘s best performance) as the clinic’s receptionist, and Tom Wilkinson’s Dr. Mierzwiak, seemingly the inventor of the erasure procedure. I don’t want to spoil too much, but suffice to say that when these guys’ story got going I was very irritated that the movie kept cutting back to Joel’s brain and yet another memory of him being a emotional arse and Clementine being somewhat likeable, but not quite.
And therein lies the problem for me: the protagonists aren’t particularly likeable people, they don’t really seem to be in love at any point — just going along for the socially approved girlfriend/boyfriend ride because they’re too uptight to work on themselves first. In fact, at the end of the story I’m not convinced that they won’t be back to the doctor in a week demanding another erasure of each other, and I’m the sort of guy who’ll believe any leap of logic in a romantic film! Any good story features a concievable change in the protagonist’s character, and while it may seem that Joel does make that change at the very end, it seems more out of curiosity than any self-improvement; it doesn’t sell for me, it doesn’t hold water.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has a lot worth watching; Kirsten Dunst, the special effects, and nobody in the cast puts in a bad performance. But it still feels like a missed opportunity. I wish I’d been able to hear about the concert.