BY PATRICIA DRAZNIN
AN AVALANCHE OF memories tumbles across the screen while characters and backdrops collapse, like movie sets, and suddenly vanish. We are witnessing the erasure of the relationship of Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) that ended abruptly and painfully after two years. To get over Joel, Clementine calls on Lacuna, Inc., where they have “perfected a safe, effective technique for the focused erasure of troubling memories.” When Joel realizes that Clementine doesn’t remember him, his pain propels him to erase her, too. But lying in his induced state while Lacuna technicians expunge Clementine from his mind, he suddenly tries to resist the process, to hold on to his precious memories of being in love.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) has a knack for posing the “What if” question and running with it. Scattering the sequence to deliver the events as Joel recalls them, Kaufman tells the surreal story of two wildly opposite personalities falling in love. Joel is introverted and private, a self-declared boring guy. Clementine is passionate and impulsive, with a penchant for wearing unexpected colors like tangerine clothing and blue hair.
Carrey plays his most powerful dramatic role ever—a restrained and lonely man who longs to love and be loved. This is hardly the persona that comes to mind when we think of Jim Carrey. Yet we can only praise director Michel Gondry for harnessing the possibilities. Carrey the wild man gets squeezed down into a troubled soul who feels embarrassed by his own discomfort. But his straight role is laced with just enough comic relief to spike the story, as only Carrey can, including childhood memories that translate into Alice in Wonderland scenes of a tiny boy hiding under a huge kitchen table or bathing in the kitchen sink.
The film’s gripping tension sags during weak performances from three young Lacuna staff members. But never mind. From the opening scenes—where the ex-lovers turned strangers meet on a commuter train—to the apt closing musical score by Beck, the fictitious story poses a host of real questions, not just about love, but about destiny versus human intervention. It also suggests that all of our memories—even the painful ones—are meant to be there. Eternal Sunshine delivers a powerful memory worth keeping.