Saturday, February 19, 2005

Year's best movie? 'Eternal Sunshine'

With all due respect to “Million Dollar Baby,” the best movie to be released last year wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. Nor did it make much of a splash at the Oscars – winning only in the consolation-prize category of Best Original Screenplay.

I guarantee you that running out to rent the DVD Sunday would have been a better use of your time than watching the overblown awards gala itself. Though you would have missed the tedious acceptance speeches by the likes of “90210” alum Hilary Swank (“I’m just a girl from a trailer park”), sanitized humor of Chris Rock and the world’s scariest plastic surgery science project team of Joan and Melissa Rivers.

Of course, it’s not too late.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (whose title is a reference to the Alexander Pope poem, “Eloisa to Abelard”) is an agonizing anatomy of a breakup and the lengths two people will go to expunge the memories of one another.

A seemingly simple story, but the unique timeline and uncomfortably genuine performances by the exquisite Kate Winslet and the understated (!) Jim Carrey, make this one stand out amongst other love ‘n loss flicks. (Though I do admittedly have a soft spot for the genre.)

Here’s the set-up: After their relationship turns bitter (or worse yet, boring), wild-child Clementine (Winslet) impulsively decides to obliterate all recollections of her ex, regular-guy Joel (Carrey), by seeking out the services of the not-quite legit Lacuna Inc. The process is cheerfully described as “brain damage” by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (British actor Tom Wilkinson of “The Full Monty” fame.)

Actually, it’s fantasy camp for the walking wounded of a bad breakup. You gather all the remnants of your ex-sweetie – the notes, the cards, the Christmas gifts, the reams of journal entries they never deserved – so that Lacuna can locate each memory in your brainwave pattern and permanently delete it.

Sound obtuse? Well, the script is by the enigmatic Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich;” “Adaptation.”) who is simply the most innovative screenwriter working in Hollywood today. Distorted reality and warped relationships are his specialty.

But “Eternal Sunshine” is also one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen, with French director Michel Gondry employing surrealist camera techniques, such as filming every shingle on a Victorian beach house dissolve into the wind while the memory of the lovers’ first meeting there is being erased.

What really makes the film work is the actors, though. There’s Elijah Wood, still very hobbit-like as he plays the slightly creepy new love interest of Clementine. And ditzy Lacuna receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst), who in pining away for her unreachable, brilliant boss, ends up with the best line of the movie: “Adults are like a combination of sadness and phobias.”

In the end, it’s really a picture about a couple – two seemingly disparate people who you come to believe are meant for each other anyway, in some universe.

Quiet Joel is a doodling daydreamer, an everyman searching for something, someone to complete him. Clementine, who sports a new fluorescent hair color in virtually every scene (“I apply my personality in paste”) turns out to be an everywoman plagued by insecurities about her looks and future. Through the twisted mind erasure games of Lacuna, they come to finally understand each other – and themselves.

When they meet again and again – in the fantasy realm of their stylized 1970s childhoods, in chance reunions at familiar city locales and finally on that same ethereal Long Island beach at the end – we know they can never really escape one another. It’s fate.

And at the end of their journey, knowing every flaw, every argument, every atrocity- they give it another go.


A cynic might snort that no one else would want such neurotic, damaged people. Fair enough.

But I think it’s because of that first road trip they took together - driving out to Boston in the dead of the night, high on that giddiness of being with someone you’re just coming to know. There’s that beautiful moment of them lying in each other’s arms on the frozen Charles River.

“I could die now,” Joel says to Clementine- because it is, after all, a movie. It got me, though. How easy would it be for any of us to leave if we conjured up that feeling of the first kiss, that first memory together?

“It is all so unreal, so swift,” Henry Miller told fellow scribe Ana├»s Nin at the beginning of their brief affair, before it warmed into friendship.

Ain’t that the truth.