Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Random thoughts for the day I watched this for the first time in many years and afterward realized it's been almost exactly a decade since I saw it in the theater, which is a weird feeling:

When this was released and my then-girlfriend and I saw it and were enchanted by it, I had never been through a breakup. Funny how getting older changes how you see a film like this so much. The scenes establishing Joel and Clementine's relationship -- in dream logic fashion, with one memory simply giving way to another non-chronologically -- feel real because they seem real, not because they're trying to embody some universal ideal of what love and relationships are like (see: 'Her') but because they are singular, unique people, like all of us. The memories aren't vague, they're specific -- and from that comes their recognizable emotional truth. These are sometimes hard truths, especially those from a couple that (crucially to the narrative) is probably destined to be happy for a little while and then drift apart. The film is not so open-ended that you can slot yourself in, but you can relate intensely to the longing, the affection, the excitement, the anger, the heartbreak, and I find that much more true now. Not to make this about me but I even went through a breakup that included a conversation about how neither of us would be able to watch this movie for a long time.

Coincidentally, this film expresses one of the life lessons of that experience for me: permanence and stability are something, but they aren't everything. Watching this tonight, as soon as Joel famously said "Enjoy it," I was in for a half-hour of teary-eyed emotional terrorism. The Joel-Clementine stuff is transcendent, and just about as vivid as screen romance has ever been. The actors are perfect. Kate Winslet needs no justification, but Jim Carrey fully rewards us for trusting in him when he gives that speech about why he left the night they first met. In not just the context of breakups I've been through where no one was wrong but everyone could be hurtful, but also in my current and very happy relationship where I still have regrets and already sepia-toned nostalgia for beautiful moments I never want to lose, this stuff hits home -- almost too closely, like the key insights in all of Kaufman's scripts. But also, a kind shout to lost love: aren't we all glad we have those memories still?

But! There's a big "but" in this movie, and even though its best moments are the best material I feel Kaufman wrote until 'Synecdoche,' I consider it weaker than the two movies he wrote for Spike Jonze. The creative restlessness and joy of the scenes with Winslet and Carrey give Kaufman and Michel Gondry so much to work with... and then every time we switch to the stoned soap operatics of the Lacuna staff, the film stops dead in its tracks. Elijah Wood is amusing and may be the sole justifiable element here; it otherwise is a very, very Hollywood stunting of a beautiful story. Only an American film would feel such a need to justify -- in such a boring, sci-fi-short-story way -- its bold and wondrous train of thought about wanting to forget your grief and yet not wanting to let go of it, something I have needed no Lacuna to struggle with, nor have you. Of course, take that stuff away and it becomes an art film -- but it practically is anyway. It's just frustrating that Gondry and his backers were ready to take people so far and then muck everything up with such a bunch of lazy plottiness. I can't remember many problems I have with any film that I wish I could change more than this. You could still retain the skeleton of the story and keep that crucial final moment: when the doomed lovers realize that it's all worth it. What a brave, scary insight -- it makes you want to run out and embrace the world (soundtracked by Jon Brion, please, this movie's secret weapon). It makes you want to say hello to someone you know or don't know. Regardless of everything, it's one gorgeous, heartwrenching movie.

Nathan liked this review