Eternal Sunshine…, as lazy people everywhere refer to it, uses science fiction to breathe some life into that trite and tired old adage, courtesy Lord Tennyson, “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Jim Carrey, in his finest performance to date, plays Joel, an artist who discovers his recent ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has undergone a procedure in which all her memories of him have been literally erased from her mind. He decides, tit-for-tat, to do the same. (Joel first asks if the procedure carries any risk of brain damage, to which the doctor replies, "technically the procedure is brain damage.")
Much of the action is set inside Joel’s mind, which plays well since the depiction of spatially illogical memoryspace seems perfectly suited to the filmic medium. Director Gondry leaps between Joel’s memories of Clementine as they are being erased and literally disintegrating (cf. props and characters disappear from the screen, sets collapse, and dialogue, intentionally, doesn’t synch up to the actors’ lip movements -- it’s as though Annie Hall were being run backwards through a projector that was on fire) as though they were all on a linear spatiotemporal plane. As Joel’s mind becomes increasingly confused so too does the film’s imagery: it starts raining in an apartment, or Joel and Clementine awake in bed and find themselves in the middle of a beach.
Charlie Kaufman’s script, an intriguing concept executed marvelously, is peppered with clever dialogue and a universal theme about the preciousness of memories, even those that are banal, sad, painful, or all three, like my entire life. While any film about a man's journey through his brain during the process of a memory erasure is going to have its share of coherency issues, like any film about time travel, they are able to be overlooked here for the sake of the affecting and absorbing drama.
Carrey has shown a range deeper than that displayed in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls in recent years, in films like The Truman Show and The Majestic, but he has never before been at once so effusive and yet, thankfully (because remember who we’re dealing with here), restrained. Kate Winslet’s performance, further proving her to be a virtuosic maestro, moves with seemingly incredible ease between frenetic spontaneity and disheveled dolor, like Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut.
Ultimately a terribly cynical portrait of modern romance, the film portrays every relationship in it as flawed, damaged, and doomed to failure. Somehow, though, we come to realize we wouldn’t trade that misery for anything in the world, not even to jump around naked with Kirsten Dunst. As Alvy Singer once explained it, I guess we all just need the eggs. However, the film itself does not so much make this point as it hopes it will force the audience make it on their own by manipulating their own personal emotional memories. It does not set to prove the aforementioned adage ("'tis better to have loved...") because it already assumes it to be true.