By Rob Sherf
Let’s take a moment to consider Charlie Kaufman, that dashing Hollywood genius behind the script for what seems like every metaphysical theatrical thrill ride over the last few years.
Hailed by many prospective PHIL 201 students as "dude, totally deep," Kaufman makes his trade in reflexive narratives delving deeply into the headiest of mind-trip themes like "what if… we were all living inside someone’s head?" and "what if… our whole life was taking place in a movie?"
Strangely enough, Kaufman’s works–to date, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Human Nature and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind–always seem to transcend their stoneriffic premises to deliver genuinely heartfelt stories about wishing to be somebody else in a different time.
After last year’s dense farce/satire/whodunit/thriller/action junket Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, one wondered where Kaufman could possibly go next. After all, he’s a writer whose schtick’s welcome could be easily worn out. It seems that for Kaufman, the natural extension of his talents is to come back to the screen with a romantic comedy starring–wait for it–Jim Carrey.
Don’t get me wrong, Eternal Sunshine is definitely more Naked Lunch than Runaway Bride.
After being stilted by his lover, Joel Barish (Carrey) finds that she (a perversely radiant Kate Winslet) has had him erased from her memory by gray-market Lacuna Industries, headed by Tom Wilkinson. Insulted and spiteful, Barish decides to undergo the same operation, but finds as soon as the process starts that good memories are being erased along with the painful ones. As with all Kaufman films, the less you know about the plot going in the better.
Suffice it to say, Eternal Sunshine does not disappoint.
You will want to prepare yourself, however, for a sugary final third with copious amounts of marauding whimsey as Barish re-lives fond memories of romantic moments from childhood and beyond.
The energy fueling these nostalgic glimpses into a perfect past is pumped by Michael Gondry, apparently an acclaimed BjÃ¶rk music video alumnus and two-time motion picture director. Gondry packs layer upon layer of icing onto the perfect sort of heart-melting moments that invariably exist in any relationship, almost to the point where Eternal Sunshine’s entire running time feels like an ever-escalating succession of "you complete me" scenes from Jerry Maguire.
Whenever the gut-wrenching romanticism gets to be too much, Kaufman and Gondry shrewdly cut to the film’s wide cast of supporting characters, all incidentally involved with Barish. There are the technicians in charge of his operation, Thomas Jay Ryan and Elijah Wood (who for the rest of his career will be strange to see de-Frodofied), a perpetually underwear-clad Kirstin Dunst and even a short but sweet appearance by beloved comic David Cross. The secondary characters are always a joy to watch, typecast to a tee.
Of course, the film’s main event remains the reconciliation of its two lovers, with Carrey brilliantly continuing his transformation into a real actor and Winslet just beginning to recover from some rocky post-Titanic career moves. The two have an awkward chemistry, easily excused (or written around) by the neurosis of both characters.
So Charlie Kaufman has come out on top, once again the king of thinking man’s Hollywood cinema. He’s crafted a beautiful love story while at the same time casting off such stories’ most entrenched plot conventions. Don’t expect the revelation of his one-two Being John Malcovich/Adaptation punch, but do expect that stoner girl from the coffee shop to respect you even more when you profess your love for a movie that’s romantic and deeeeeeeep.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind opens Fri., Mar 19.