April 8, 2004

Synaptic Damage

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Along with Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet, Charlie Kaufman has emerged as one of the best screenwriters around. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film that takes its title from an Alexander Pope poem, is Kaufman’s fifth script to make it to screen, and also the first time I’ve seen a film solely because of the writer. In Sunshine, it is easy to notice the idiosyncratic and self-contained characters that Kaufman’s stories are known for. Jim Carrey’s Joel has the emotional restraint of John Cusack’s Craig from Being John Malkovich. Kate Winslet’s Clementine has a bossy charm and hair that changes color as frequently as her disposition. She is somewhat of a female version of Adaptation’s Oscar-winning John LaRoche (Chris Cooper). But why does Sunshine stand out as being far better than Kaufman’s earlier triumphs? Solely because Kaufman and French director Michel Gondry have re-defined the terms “romantic comedy” and “coming of age.” Sunshine’s genuine approach to the past and its simultaneously dark and uplifting encapsulation of relationships hits a note so deeply heartfelt that it bears comparison to the pulsating sentiment of Ordinary People.

But let’s not sell this movie short. Sunshine deserves far more than comparisons when it is truly one of a kind, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Joel (Carrey) and Clementine (Winslet) meet as a result of random circumstances and have an over-the-top first night together. After a painful breakup, Clementine signs up to get her memories of Joel erased for good. Joel finds out from mutual friends, and, in an instance of masculine pride, requests the same removal of his memories with her. From here on out, the majority of the film takes place with Joel unconscious on his bed as Lacuna, the “erasing” company, does the dirty work. Its staff (Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson, and Elijah Wood) track down each of Joel’s memories of Clementine. During this process, the film follows the unconscious Joel as he jumps through his memories and his past, resulting in two big realizations. First, he figures out that various memories are being taken from him. Second, and more importantly, he changes his mind and now wants to keep his memories of his ex-girlfriend. “This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon. What do we do?” asks Clementine as another memory dissolves around them. “Enjoy it,” he responds appreciatively, after being awakened to the intrinsic value of their love.

The film seems to be confusing, with space and time constantly changing, but remains remarkably easy to follow. It has that kind of traceable exquisiteness that makes the viewer even more involved and connected to the story. Essentially, Sunshine is a romanticized version of something like Donnie Darko — the central narrative doesn’t change much. We see a relationship for what it was, and only after dissecting the influences and consequences, can we see the relationship for what it is now. Jumpy, “professionally amateur” camera-work, and well-timed plot twists push the brilliant theme into new, unpredictable directions.

Kaufman’s earlier works involved the life of a real actor (John Malkovich) or real screenwriter (himself). They were fascinating and pitch-perfect stories in construction, yet very hard to empathize with. I can’t connect with Hollywood professionals beyond simply having childish dreams of stardom. It is with Sunshine that Kaufman finally uses his niche for eccentric characters and surreal realities for the greater good, as he shoots for the heart. He takes the literal form of the post break-up “I never want to see him / her again” and, in mind-boggling fashion, reveals the importance of loving, losing, and caring. At one point, we see peaceful childhood versions of the couple. Here, we get an idea of what happened in the years between then and the confused, struggling grown ups in the present. Scenes like this are why Sunshine gets it right. We don’t remember why we were arguing or who said what. We just remember what we were feeling.

Archived article by Dan Cohen
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer