Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

He has had amazing creative successes (“Being John Malkovich,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”) and just as amazing failures (“Human Nature” comes immediately to mind). And some come right in the middle— “Adaptation” is a great script and film, but one that falls apart in the third act. It is in this middle category that I also place his latest effort, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which was pushed back in late July from a November release to now sometime in 2004. This film poses the question: “Are those who do not remember history, condemned to repeat itr”

So why do I feel so let down by itr Two words: weak characters. It is a recurring, nagging problem I’ve come to see. Once you get past the unique concept, his films often have the ability to collapse into themselves. It becomes even more telling here, as his main characters have their memories of past loves erased from their mind, and sometimes a little bit more. What is left is an interesting character study at times, but one in which the uninteresting central characters drag the story down; I think audiences will fail to become enthused with it because of this. While some might be able to find some rudimentary angle that would cause them to stick with it, it doesn’t help that every 10 or so pages of the script has the main characters uttering something like “I can’t think of much to say probably” (as said by Joel, played by Jim Carrey) or “My life isn’t that interesting” (Clementine, played by Kate Winslet) to drive this point home.

Kaufman has a great concept for this film, but I feel as if he ultimately misses his mark here. This is the third script I have read for this film (I was able to read two previous drafts as well), and while each one has gotten better, mainly through tightening up the middle act, it still seems as if something is missing. Still, there are some great sequences I’m looking forward to seeing, particularly in how they managed to translate this to the screen.

This script review includes major plot points to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Read at your own risk.

The Plot
The film begins approximately 50 years in the future, in the waiting room of a New York building bearing the name Random House-Knopf-Taschen. An elderly woman, described as “haunted, hollow-eyed and sickly,” has come to show one of the publishers a book that she describes as being the truth, something only she knows.

After this ominous beginning, viewers are whisked 50 years back in time, into the office of Lacuna Ltd. A woman, Clementine Kruczynski, enters for her scheduled appointment; we soon learn she is there to have her memory wiped clean of a previous boyfriend. We meet some of the other characters here as well: Dr. Mierzwiak, who created the device capable of removing selected memories; Mary, his office worker, who makes no concealment of her crush on him, despite his apparent obliviousness; Stan, who is currently dating Mary and serves Mierzwiak’s right-hand man; and Patrick, who crosses ethical boundaries with some of the patients and steals a pair of Clementine’s panties when they perform her operation.

When asked why she wants to have the procedure performed on her, Clementine gives a rambling answer. As she tells Mierzwiak, “On a certain level, I want to break it off, but I feel…y’know… it’s like this constant questioning and re-questioning. Do I end itr Should I give it more timer I’m not happy, but what do I expectr Relationships require work. You know the drill.” And her full explanation runs about four times this brief extrapolation— the viewer quickly gets the idea she’s slightly unbalanced, with her off-kilter personality and blue hair.

Mierzwiak says he can help her, and asks of her to tell her about the relationship, “Everything you can think of. Everything about him. Everything about you. And we’ll take it from there.”

The reader/viewer is again transported in time. This time it’s two weeks later, as shy Joel Barish skips work to visit the beaches of Montauk. Via a voiceover, we find he’s come here to recoup after seeing his ex, Naomi, the night before. It’s the first time he has seen her in two years. Visiting a diner, he sees Clementine, and they talk on the train ride back. There’s something recognizable about her, but something he can’t pin down in his mind.

Joel gives her a ride to her place, where they find out more about each other— He’s fascinated by her aloofness, her funky hair color and desire to be the one that selects the name for hair coloring products, as well as her familiarity with Tom Waits and Robert Frost. She kids that she’ll attempt to seduce him, but his reaction is more of alarm than anything else at this prospect. She also tells him she has just begun to see someone, who we later find out is Patrick. He leaves, promising her he will call her that night, “just to test out the phone lines and all,” as she puts it.

The script then reverts back to three days before this encounter: Joel is distraught over a break-up…with Clementine. Going to spy on her at the bookstore where she works, we hear two voices coming from him, the present and the future Joel doing battle. “I love you and if you knew that…if I told you what happened…I’ll explain everything, what we meant to each other,” says the first Joel, the future Joel. “I’ll tell you everything about our time together. You’ll know everything again and…” At the same time, a voiceover from Joel says, the Joel of the present. “Maybe if I just explain what happened, I wouldn’t have to go through this and I could tell you everything and it would be like you knew and we could rebuild and we could be happy again…”

The next day Joel finds himself at Lacuna, his eyes red from a long bout of crying. In tow are two bags of items from his relationship with Clementine. He’s there to have the memory-erasing procedure performed on himself; We learn a few pages later he found out about the company through a card sent to a couple he is friends with, asking them not to bring up Joel’s name to Clementine (it was through them that Joel met Clementine).

Mierzwiak explains the procedure to him, telling Joel that “we’ll start with your most recent memories and go backwards. There is an emotional core to each of our memories— As we eradicate this core, it starts its degradation process. By the time you wake up in the morning, all memories we’ve targeted will have withered and disappeared. Like a dream upon waking…we use the articles you brought to create a map of Clementine in your brain. Tonight while you sleep we’ll be able to trace the map and erase.”

The next scene finds Joel at his home, with electrodes connecting his head to a number of machines. Stan and Patrick are there, with Mary soon visiting as well, and the journey begins. Viewers watch some of the happier times between Joel and Clementine wither in his mind’s eye, as well as some that weren’t so great. As the memories fly by, he realizes that he doesn’t want to let them go.

At the same time, Patrick tells Stan he asked out Clementine after tracking her down after her own procedure and he soon slips away from his duties to go visit her. Stan and Mary smoke some pot and begin to hook up, then realize Patrick is “off the map” on the computer. Stan calls Mierzwiak, who comes in to do damage control at Joel’s apartment.

Cue to Joel in his mind, where he’s having a conversation with Mierzwiak. Joel tells him they have to stop the procedure, that “I’m trapped in my head and everything I love is being erased!” Mierzwiak replies, “Yes, but… I’m just something you’re imagining. What can I dor I’m in your head, too.” Joel soon realizes that to keep Clementine in his memories, he has to bring her into those that she wasn’t in previously, like when he was a small child. Locating them through the computers, Mierzwiak begins zapping other salient memories of Joel haphazardly.

Mary soon comes on to Mierzwiak, and they begin to fool around despite the fact that he is married. His wife, not trusting him, spies them fooling around and sets in motion the final act, a u-turn when another of the principal characters realize she too has had memories erased. Soon, this character begins sending files detailing each patient’s procedure to formerly operated-on clients. Clementine and Joel realize their history as well and, at the end, we see one of the two, much older now, coming in to have the procedure done yet again. It’s a dour end to an interesting concept.

My Thoughts
The title of the script comes from a poem by 18th-century poet Alexander Pope, called “Eloisa to Abelard.” This passage of the 366-line poem, which deals with the sorrowing or rebellious love,” reads:

“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.”

The above is certainly applicable to the love between Joel and Clementine, brought together by loneliness and fulfilling each other’s needs. Are they at all compatibler Probably not. But they each balance the other out.

More than anything else, what really pulled me into the story was the philosophical musings peppered into the script. Are we all on a train track, set on an unalterable and inevitable courser Are the forgetful blessed, as Nietzsche once said, for they get the better even of their blundersr What are we without our core base of memories, even bad onesr Looking through the focal lens of this script, the case Kaufman makes is that we are indeed set on a certain course, and those that forget their past will indeed repeat themselves in some shape or form.

But the problem here is the characters, as I had said above, not the concept. If I were to meet a Clementine in real life, I would have quickly written her off (and she sounds suspiciously like someone I was seeing until recently, natch). While I am a fan of films that have difficult protagonists, the character of Clementine makes this a difficult script to read. And the tone she helps set here, along with Patrick, has me worried that audiences will think the same. Mixing this along with elements from “Punch Drunk Love” and “What Dreams May Come” will make this a difficult sell in the marketplace, despite its high-wattage cast. Among the players here besides Carrey and Winslet are Elijah Wood as Patrick (in a role that is extremely different from his turn in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which will shock some of his fans), Kirsten Dunst as Mary, Mark Ruffalo as Stan and Tom Wilkinson as Dr. Mierzwiak. Had Kaufman come up with better characters for this wonderful concept, I’m sure I would have been much more upbeat with this review. It just doesn’t work for me in the way it was written.

I fear for other elements as well, that Jim Carrey is dreadfully miscast here as the low-wattage Joel and the choice of director, Michael Gondry, who helmed the aforementioned “Human Nature.” Maybe Carrey is an appropriate choice to show what has been lost, but, as “The Majestic,” showed, it’s going to be hard to get them in the door for a restrained performance like this. Look at what happened box office-wise with Adam Sandler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love.” And can Gondry redeem himself for the disastrous “Nature,” although it’s easy enough to argue that it was the script that was at fault I’m not sure on either count.

Another concern is the constant skipping of time, especially in the first act, which forces the viewers to keep a roadmap and a timeline of where they are and where they have been. It took me a couple of reads to put it all together, and that was with the help of a physical script— imagine trying to follow it along on the big screen.

Kaufman’s efforts have been described as putting an odd drink concoction into a blender and setting it on frappe. That’s certainly true here. In the end, despite a great concept, that drink concoction makes me want to reach for something else to drink instead. It’s a worthy effort that many will enjoy despite its flaws. But it’s going to be lost on general audiences in the end. This script, written by Charlie Kaufman, is not dated, but is listed as the “white draft.” This review also incorporates comments based on two previous drafts, both also undated. Filming on this feature began January 8, 2003.

Rating: C-