About a Boy

Growing up with Charlie Kaufman

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind takes its title from a line by Alexander Pope, the 18th-century neoclassicist poet whose witty, polished heroic couplets were his way of imposing order on a world that had arbitrarily made him a four-foot-six-inch hunchback. I suspect that film scripts serve a similar healing function for Charlie Kaufman, a self-confessed neurotic whose post-Woody Allen take on the chaotic modern psyche has made him a genre unto himself. Kaufman has a knack for catchy premises—he slyly turns creep-show scenarios into reality-bending comedy—and though he works with big-name directors (Spike Jonze, George Clooney and here Michel Gondry), his stylistic footprint is so vivid he always winds up being seen as the auteur. He's the only non-directing American screenwriter ever to turn himself into a brand. Which isn't altogether a good thing: The very orgy of inventiveness that once made his work feel breathtakingly original now risks feeling mannered and predictable.

Kaufman's trick is to take psychological states and give them literal form: projection in Being John Malkovich, animal impulses in Human Nature (with its furry Patricia Arquette), schizophrenic and/or coke-induced delusions in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the divided self in Adaptation. The same sort of literalization is at work in Eternal Sunshine, a manic piece of Kafkaesque vaudeville about love, loss and the modern world's attempt to scrub away anything, however human, that might make us unhappy.

Jim Carrey, still aiming to be Jimmy Stewart, stars as shy, quiet, depressive Joel Barish, reeling from his sudden breakup with Clementine (Kate Winslet), a loud, boozing clerk at Borders whose potato sculptures and ever-changing hair color (often in Froot Loop hues) suggest her instability—and her raucous gift for spontaneous life. Discovering that she's had all memory of him erased from her brain by an outfit called Lacuna, Joel decides to return the favor. Soon, he's being treated by the company's half-baked crew: gung-ho receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst), goofy technician Frank (Mark Ruffalo), who wants to get into Mary's pants, and his trainee sidekick Patrick (Elijah Wood), who's using inside info to pursue his own romance with Clementine. They're overseen by melancholy memory-erasure guru Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), who offers his patients the joys of forgetfulness. But halfway into the treatment, something in Joel starts rebelling against such facile consolation. Fighting to reclaim his memory (and just possibly the love) of the happily named Clementine, he literally chases her (or his fantasies of her) through the spiraling curlicues of his psyche—memories of their shared past; Freudianized fantasies of his childhood; amusingly weird landscapes that, in their pop-dream iconography, recall both album-cover DalĂ­ knockoffs and Tarkovsky's Solaris (whose scene of indoor rain is quoted here).

Many viewers, including me, have complained that Kaufman's work often disappears up its own navel, that it's too damn clever and solipsistic for its own good. He apparently must worry about the same thing, too. For in the dozen years since he wrote for Chris Elliot's TV show Get a Life, the acme of entertainment as self-loathing, his work has increasingly taken a therapeutic bent: His stories are about escaping angst-riddled self-absorption and learning to live like a normal human. With its warm-blooded romance between Meryl Streep's Susan Orlean and Chris Cooper's orchid thief, Adaptation marked a clear emotional advance beyond Malkovich's mere cleverness, and the new movie takes Kaufman even further. Not only does it boast the most down-to-earth characters he's yet created (Clementine accurately terms herself "just a fucked-up girl looking for my own peace of mind"), but for all its exhausting twists, the movie wants to grapple with ordinary feelings of yearning and loss. Sliding up its own navel but eventually finding its way out again, it's a movie about its hero—dare I say it?— growing up.

The idea of making a movie about memory actually came from director Gondry, best known for his Levi's ads and videos for bands like White Stripes, whose feature debut found him defeated by Kaufman's script for Human Nature. He shows far greater control in Eternal Sunshine, having apparently learned the key lesson of Jonze's work in Malkovich and Adaptation: When a script's really crazy, the director must keep things tethered to reality. Adopting a comparatively plain style, Gondry shuffles levels of reality like a crooked croupier who knows the key to success is to seem unobtrusive. Still, like Kaufman, Gondry tends toward the conceptual, and at moments, he becomes too enthralled with the movie's teeming riot of images. You can tell he just loves his digitalized magical flourishes, those apartments melting away into seascapes or Carrey, dressed as little-boy Joel, hiding beneath a huge kitchen table in a '70s kitchen.

In Human Nature, Gondry's obsession with style forced the actors to fend for themselves—Arquette and Tim Robbins remained the mirthless cartoons Kaufman had created. Gondry obviously learned from his mistake. Here, he wins a good-humored turn from an oddly coifed Ruffalo, lovely moments of regret from Wilkinson and a beautifully modulated performance from Dunst, who goes from bouncing on a bed in her panties (sort of a personal trademark, I guess) to becoming the film's one truly heartbreaking figure. Although Winslet long ago established herself as a compelling screen actress, Gondry reveals something new in her: She's the world's scariest screwball comedienne. "Drink up, young man," Clementine tells Joel on their first meeting. "It'll make the whole seduction part less repugnant."

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."

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was directed by Michel Gondry; screenplay by Charles Kaufman; story by Kaufman, Gondry and Pierre Bismuth; produced by Anthony Bregman and Steve Golin; and stars Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet and Elijah Wood. Now playing countywide.

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