Directed by: Michel Gondry

Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson

Cracked relationships can be a tired premise in cinema, particularly within the scope of linear storytelling. This is why, presumably, director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman have constructed a love story in such a unique fashion.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind tells the story of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), who finds out that his girlfriend of 2 years, Clementine (Kate Winslet), has recently undergone a procedure which erases him from her memory. Although their relationship is rocky at the moment, Joel is still crushed and so decides to undergo the memory-erasing procedure himself. We watch his memories with Clementine play out in reversechronological order, and as Joel gets closer to the good times he had with her, he begins to regret his decision, but now it might be too late.

As fun as it is to experience the twisted narrative unfold, the film, in its attempt to present a cliché concept in a unique fashion, misses a big emotional mark.

The most important takeaway is the acknowledgement that every relationship is a bit clumsy and shattered, especially the longer you stick with it. Yet despite all the meaningful revelations that Joel, and thus the audience, goes through, there’s still something fundamentally flawed with the execution of the story.

Gondry takes us on a non-linear journey of Joel and Clementine’s relationship. Not just non-linear because the events are played backwards, but because the beginning of the film shows us the end of the story, or close enough at least. This isn’t really a spoiler because the “twist” is extremely obvious, with several clues that should definitely tip you off before you’re even 45 minutes into the movie. Twists only work if we never see them coming. We expect a film of this nature to surprise and tantalize us. Instead, there’s very little of the plot that the viewer can’t see coming from a mile away.

Because we know that the timeline continues after his procedure, all the suspense is removed from his situation. His desire to stop the memory erasing, or to stay within the memory world these moments that should have been suspenseful or sympathy inducing result in a passive audience, viewing the film without feeling any anxiety. The suspense would come from the viewer’s uncertainty about whether or not Joel and Clementine will ever meet again; sadnessfrom the potential erasure of their relationship.

However, when Joel begs the technicians to stop the procedure, we don’t feel any of that desperation simply because we already see the end result. We know that they will find one another again. It’s like watching an older James Bond movie, knowing he won’t die simply because of the fact that there were a dozen more James Bond installments released afterwards. However, there are other reasons to watch a Bond movie. In Eternal Sunshine, all the eggs are put into the basket of this one twist.

The “in medias res” trick actually hurts our investment in the story, even if our investment in the characters was already stifled. Their relationship isn’t developed enough before moving into the 2nd act, yet Gondry demands that we still care. When Joel meets Clementine “for the first time,” we aren’t convinced that he even likes her, more that he’s just desperate and wants some attention. Or perhaps he’s just humoring her advances to be nice. Her personality isn’t necessarily appealing, so what does he see in her that we don’t? Gondry doesn’t care to fill us in.

This isn’t to allege that there’s no technical genius behind the camera. The way Gondry utilizes planes of action to highlight the inherent peculiarities of the story creates a unique sense of time that clicks with the audience and feels unique. The potentially-complicated trajectory is always easy to grasp, which is a big win for the filmmaker.

The performances, as well, are special. Both Joel and Clementine feel lived in, much to Carrey and Winslet’s credit, but their characters, however, don’t feel lived in with each other. Mark Ruffalo, in a supporting role as the technician, does a fantastic job with his somewhat limited screen time. Ruffalo is a master at bringing nuance and subtext to an otherwise simple character, something he’s become known for over the years. His turn in this film shouldn’t go overlooked.

For a large chunk in the middle the main plot feels stagnant, only to be saved by some B-plot involving the technician in charge of erasing Joel’s memories (Ruffalo), his girlfriend (Kirsten Dunst), and their boss (Tom Wilkinson). This story piece merely connects as a pseudo-counterpoint to Joel and Clementine’s relationship, but ultimately feels like it’s included only to break up the tedium of Joel’s uneventful flashbacks. Ultimately, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is more style than substance. We get put in awe of how Gondry delivers his story that we forget that these characters have little to do other than offer us an example of a pretty generic failed relationship. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, which can serve as a companion piece to this one as it delves into the nuanced conflict of two former lovers who actually still care about one another, seeming to regret

their decision to get a divorce while it’s currently in the process of happening. That movie is much more linear and less predictable, with Baumbach getting us to feel for these characters by rounding out their personal issues—and it works. Eternal Sunshine has some intriguing things to say, but focuses more on how they’re said, which actually detracts from the actual meaning of the events and gives Kaufman an out from having to provide us with actual meaty scenarios from a relationship. Yet somehow, likely due to the charming performances and the ambitious set design, despite the predictability of the story, the film achieves a likability nonetheless.

Because we know that the timeline continues after his procedure, all the suspense is removed from his situation.

About the Author: Ethan Brehm

Ethan Brehm

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