REVIEW: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

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Occasionally I will come across a movie that despite its obvious strengths and critical acclaim never connects with me. Often times it can be traced to a bad initial reaction or maybe to specific themes or performances that I didn’t care for. But there are also occasions where a movie will leave a slight mark in the back of my mind. These are films that deserve to be wrestled with regardless of my initial misgivings. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is one of those films. After a fairly tepid first impression I was ready to dismiss the movie, but overwhelmingly positive reviews and a tinge of curiosity convinced me that this film deserved a second viewing.

Acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay which was based on a story he created along with director Michael Gondry and Pierre Bismuth. It cleverly develops itself as a romantic drama but incorporates a subtle bit of science fiction to create a cerebral and multifaceted story. Kaufman and Gondry steer clear of any traditional mode of storytelling and instead engage the audience on an intellectual and emotional level. There’s nothing conventional about “Eternal Sunshine” and at times its lack of clarity may be a little frustrating. But having a firm understanding of the periphery allows you to better understand what is going on inside at the heart of the film.

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The story starts by introducing us to a morose and withdrawn man named Joel Barish (Jim Carrey). One morning while waiting on the train for his morning commute he takes off on a whim and hops aboard another train heading out of the city. While aimlessly strolling down a Long Island beach he notices a woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet) who appears to be doing the same thing. A couple of chance meetings later and the two are on the same train heading back into the city. Eventually a relationship forms between these two lost souls, but before we get a good taste of it there is a dramatic narrative shift.

The film leaps forward in time which is the first of many transitions in Kaufman’s fractured storytelling. We find out that Clementine has visited a clinic called Lacuna, Inc. which specializes in wiping certain people or things from an individual’s mind. Clementine has had Joel erased. There is a real challenge here for the audience because neither we nor Joel know why she has done it. You have to wade through this information gap until Kaufman is ready to give you more. An angry Joel decides to enact his own form of revenge by visiting Lacuna himself and having Clementine wiped from his mind.

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Lacuna, Inc. is the brainchild of Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). His staff is made up of his peppy receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst), his frazzly haired chief technician Stan (Mark Ruffalo), and his technician’s assistant Patrick (Elijah Wood). Each have their own surprising role to play in this absurd but utterly fascinating procedure that Joel undergoes. They also each have their own bits to add to a lightweight but intriguing side story. From there the majority of the film takes place in Joel’s mind as he has a sudden change of heart and tries to cling to and hide away any memory of Clementine before they can be erased.

The movie snaps back and forth between the surreal world inside Joel’s brain and the real world where an assortment of things play out between the Lacuna gang and Clementine. To go any further would be a criminal injustice to those who haven’t seen the picture but suffice it to say it’s some unique and compelling stuff. Also, you can’t simplify what is going on as I did during my first viewing. Kaufman and Gondry aren’t interested in a straight-line narrative or generic over-used tropes. There is a fragmented structure that is made challenging by the playing around with with chronology and order. But there is a method to the messiness that I didn’t appreciate before.

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I also didn’t appreciate just how good of a performance that Carrey gives. Over the past couple of years the actor hasn’t help his sputtering career with some rather dopey decisions he has made. But this is a performance that shows a comedic actor embracing something different and really doing it well. Winslet is her usual rock-solid self. It’s an odd and erratic role but she never struggles with it. The supporting cast is also very good at handling what they are asked to do.

I still think “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a bit indulgent and I do think there are some moments where it doesn’t hit the emotional note that it is going for. But to say my opinion of the film has changed would be an understatement. I can honestly say that “I got it” during my second viewing and my appreciation for what the movie does is unquestioned. I still feel the need to see it again after the birth of my new feelings towards it, but this time it won’t be for the same reasons.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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42 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

  1. I’m glad you gave this a second chance and now like it more. I think it brilliance, so much so that features prominently in my Top Ten All Time (which Zoe recently published).

    • I’m soooo glad I watched this again and I can really see it growing on me even more. It really is a mesmerizing story and I genuinely cared about these two people.

      I’m not sure why my first viewing didn’t resonate but this was an entirely different experience. I do remember seeing you really loved the film. I can see why. There’s a lot of heart and a lot of craft behind the film!

  2. Good review Keith. One of my favorite movies of all time, as well as my favorite rom-com ever made. I think that’s about enough I can say about that.

  3. I totally understand that this flick is hit-and-miss with you regarding its emotionality and humanity, but there are some sequences that just tug at your heart. For me, the scene where Carey reminisced about his childhood during a rainstorm and when he is peer pressured into killing the pigeon, to this day, stick in my head. Excellent post, Keith :).

    • Thank you! Like other commenters, it sounds like it it definitely a favorite of yours too.

      Really happy that I gave it another look! Talk about having an entirely different movie experience. Very good film.

  4. Great review Keith, good to see you give it a second chance. It is a quite obtuse film every now and then but I think in the end it’s pretty clear what the film is trying to do. I absolutely love this one. A very interesting take on a common theme, that’s all certain.

    • Thank you very much. It really did surprise me how different my two viewing experiences were. Have you ever approached a movie and while watching it you just couldn’t connect with it? That’s what happened with me the first time. But for some reason or another during the second viewing it all fell into place. So glad I gave it another chance.

      • Yeah for sure. Most recently it happened to me with Midnight in Paris. Everyone keeps saying how good that film is, so perhaps I’ll give it another go-round on Netflix. If I can just find it again,. . .lol

      • Ahh “Midnight” is a favorite of mine. Beautiful film in a variety of ways. Yep, that’s one I would definitely recommend seeing again.

  5. Really glad you liked it more second time around mate. I haven’t seen it for ages but I remember really liking it. Keep meaning to watch it again. There are a few films that I really didn’t ‘get’ first time around that I need to revisit actually.

    • It’s weird man, I really didn’t get it. In fact in many ways I didn’t like it. Thanks to the high praise from friends and fellow bloggers plus the critical acclaim it received, I knew I needed to give it another look. Really glad I did. Isn’t it strange how a second viewing can change things? Sometimes it’s for the good and sometimes it’s for the bad. This was definitely for the good.

  6. Good to hear you came round to this one, man. I thought it was marvellous. Gondry is such a visionary and to have him work from a Kaufman script is a perfect match. Loved this movie!

    • I have to admit I was really quite captivated with it the second time around. Have you ever had movies like this? You watch them the first time and you leave wondering what all the hoopla is about.

      I really wasn’t all that excited about seeing it the second time. I just knew that I really needed to. But from the early scene on the train I knew something was different. Mainly because I connected with the two characters right off the bat.

    • It was such a pleasant surprise the second go around. As I have said elsewhere, I don’t know why the movie didn’t connect with me the first time But I really appreciated it after a second viewing.

  7. Nice review. I haven’t seen this for a long time but remember it being superb, and completely agree with you on Carrey’s performance. It’s a shame that he hasn’t done anything quite as good as this or – say – Man On The Moon or The Truman Show for quite a while. Unless I’ve missed something!

    • No I don’t think you’ve missed anything. You’re spot on about Carrey. It’s a really interesting movie and it’s a very unique take on a fairly common idea. I think that’s what I like so much about it. The fact that it does take some chances and for the most part it succeeds.

      • Agreed! Did you ever see Adaptation by any chance? Jonze and Kaufman again but it didn’t really do it for me. I wouldn’t mind re-watching both – I think Lacuna Inc have wiped large parts of my memory of Eternal Sunshine.

      • LOL! Yes I have seen Adaptation. I do remember liking it a lot but for some reason it hasn’t stuck with me as a truly great movie. I too have wanted to revisit it.

  8. Brilliant review. This film is incredible, the script is incredible, the performances are incredible, I guess what you can say here is that I think this film is incredible.

    • But the question is do you like it? 😉

      I don’t know how I missed the strengths of this movie when watching it a while back. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite movies now but I really, really appreciate it. In fact I’m really curious to see how much more I like it after a third viewing. I still feel as though there’s some things I have missed.

  9. Aiyah, I haven’t seen this one yet. My hubby really likes this one though and he said he doesn’t mind seeing it again so I can’t comment yet on this. I hope I like it as much as you did on your 2nd viewing 😀

    • It really did make an impact on me the second time around. I’m not sure why it didn’t click the first time. There really is some genius to the script and the visual presentation. It’s definitely one you should pay a visit.

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