Charlie Kaufman must have a direct line to the future.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND

An Illusion review by Joan Ellis


                 Charlie Kaufman must have a direct line to the future.  A few months ago this movie might have been reviewed simply as an innovative look at the role memory plays in our being.  But shortly after it opened in wide release, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was thrown into wildly bold letters by one of those events that often signals a big cultural shift. On April 4th, The New York Times Magazine published a high profile article entitled “The Quest to Forget,” a description of current research, primarily at Harvard, into the development of drugs to temper or eliminate traumatic memories. 

If you happened to see both the movie and the article within a week, the feeling is inescapable – “uh,oh, here we go again.”  In their research with Propranolol (a beta blocker), Harvard researchers embrace the noble goal of helping people deal with post-traumatic stress.  How long will it be before the drug is given to erase simply unpleasant memories?  What would be the ripple effects be?  How long before emotional identity is altered by a person’s ability to sift his own memories, to retain only the positive?   Somewhere between memories of agony and of joy, aren’t people made of what they have experienced? 

Charlie Kaufman’s movie, now on the multiplex screens of popular culture, throws out enough possibilities to make us realize the New York Times article has already gone mainstream.  Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) meet on the empty winter’s beach at Montauk.  Or do they?  As the story moves from end toward beginning, we learn that the pair has met here before, same scenario, that they broke up, and that Clementine visited Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), an expert in erasing painful memories.  The good doctor uses his laptop to scan the patient’s brain for pain and poof – he erases the bad stuff as easily as you and I delete spam from our email. 

The problem, of course, is that bad memories are entangled in our brains with all that accompanies them.  Notes, pictures, songs, and memory triggers of all kinds are neither easily nor permanently deleted.  And what happens, as in Joel’s case, when one person who was part of the memory wants to recover it, pain and all? 

Jim Carrey’s Joel is believable, often touching, as a love struck insecure puppy until he starts acting out his childhood in scenes that seem thrown in just to give him the chance to do his rubber muggery.  Kate Winslet’s Clementine is game, eccentric and lonely.  The fine supporting cast is wasted in a meandering sub-plot that adds little to the plot.  Best to see Kirsten Dunst and Mark Ruffalo in better things.

The movie is brilliantly titled from a poem by Alexander Pope and if you couple its slightness with the ominous article in The Times, you will be edgy from now on about just how close the painless eternal sunshine of the spotless mind may really be.


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