Of course, it's no surprise that Winslet and Dunst should shine so brightly, for both the warmest and the scariest creatures in Kaufman's work have always been women— Streep/Orlean's vulnerability in Adaptation, Drew Barrymore's radiant portrait of a '60s chick in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Catherine Keener's definitive ball-buster in Malkovich. At once bighearted and frightening, Clementine may be the ultimate Kaufman woman. Indeed, there may be no purer image of his vision of femininity than the giddy scene in which she leads the terrified Joel onto a frozen river and keeps assuring him that the ice won't crack beneath them.
Eternal Sunshine is so predictably daring, well-made and tirelessly inventive that I kept asking myself, "Why isn't this even better? Why isn't it moving me?" One huge problem is the hero. Not only is Joel a generically immature sad sack—this drip needs to get a personality as well as a life—but he's played by 42-year-old Jim Carrey, whose still-bottomless need to be loved invariably smacks of desperation and self-pity (remember the grisly non-divine parts of Bruce Almighty?). He works hard, but as with that other brilliant mimic, Peter Sellers, there's a hollowness at the center. Winslet has few peers at displaying headlong romanticism—she fooled the world into thinking that Leonardo was the ardent one in Titanic—and Carrey gives her nothing back.
This failure of chemistry helps explain why, in a film about memory, what we actually see of Joel's time with Clementine lacks the subtle textures of a real relationship—it's either too cutesy or too acrimonious. Because we don't feel a deep bond between the two of them, we can't share their regret for what they've lost. For all of Eternal Sunshine's technical polish—the script's as neatly turned as one of Pope's couplets—Kaufman's conception of their relationship remains surprisingly adolescent. Its desire to explore memory makes one think of Proust, Kundera, Tarkovsky, Resnais, even Dennis Potter, but to think of those names is to instantly grasp Eternal Sunshine's limitations. It lacks the emotional and stylistic richness you find in, say, Solaris, The Singing Detective, Raul Ruiz's thrilling Proust film Time Regained, or Resnais' neglected Je T'aime, Je T'aime, in which a man recovering from a suicide attempt takes part in a time-travel experiment that keeps shuttling him between moments in the earlier life that made him want to kill himself.
Borges once said that great art is algebra and fire. While there's plenty of glittering algebra in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman and Gondry need more of the fire of genuine human passion, in all its complexity. By film's end, Joel is a different man. He's learned to get out of his own head, to accept that things can't be perfect and to take a chance on love even if you know it may be impermanent. All of these are worthwhile lessons, to be sure—that's why they're in self-help books—but they're nowhere near as sophisticated as the filmmaking that puts them across. As a friend joked, "If you peel away the movie's postmodern tricks, what you're left with is about as profound as a Hugh Grant movie."