Charlie Kaufman writes heady movies about the heart. His resume - "Being John Malkovich," "Human Nature," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Adaptation" and now "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" - offers a trick bag of off-kilter views into the disgruntled male soul.
But Carrey, bless him, has curbed his look-at-me tendencies to turn in his most convincing dramatic performance. As Joel, he does less acting with his eyes than in any previous movie, which is a good thing, particularly since director Michel Gondry ("Human Nature") often thrusts his camera right up to the actor's nose.
The metaphysical curveball tossed by Kaufman is that Joel discovers that his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), has undergone a newfangled procedure to erase him from her memories. Distraught that she no longer recognizes or responds to him, Joel decides to retaliate and have her wiped from his mind as well.
But as he lies in a state of induced sleep, his mind clings to memories of Clementine even as technicians played by Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood attempt to zap them. The tug-of-war grows more fierce as the last traces of Clementine are in danger of disappearing.
As usual, Kaufman has come up with an intriguing, left-field way of dealing with relatable, thorny feelings. As the pioneering Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) explains to Joel, "Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage."
Practically speaking, the procedure represents another kind of damage: Memories and experiences are what make us who we are, so deleting them, the movie prods us to think, is a way of denying our own lives.
Kaufman has taken his title from Alexander Pope's poem "Eloisa to Abelard," which includes the lines, "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 resigned."
"Eternal Sunshine" is always engaging, never boring. You constantly appreciate Kaufman's intelligence and Gondry's lively filmmaking, which favors hand-held cameras and energetic cutting while eschewing computer graphics for in-camera optical effects.
Kaufman is especially sharp with off-handed observations, such as Clementine's aversion to the word "nice," or Joel's grumbling, "Sand is overrated. It's just tiny little rocks."
The supporting cast, which also includes Kirsten Dunst as the doctor's admiring receptionist, is rock-solid, and it's a joy to watch Winslet cut loose after a series of serious roles ("The Life of David Gale," "Iris"). With a flirtatious impulsiveness and hair that takes on various cotton-candy shades, Clementine is the life of the party, if a complicated one.
Yet "Eternal Sunshine" may be easier to admire than to fall for. It's got memorable images, such as Joel and Clementine lying atop cracked ice looking at the night sky, as well as contrived ones, like the bit with Joel imagining himself as a kid in an oversized kitchen.
Hooking you with an introductory segment that lasts more than 15 minutes before the opening titles, the movie is constructed in a way that invites you to mentally reassemble it. But once you piece together the puzzle - which doesn't take much effort if you're paying attention - you may find the picture offers less than expected.
For one, I doubt most viewers are predisposed to think that erasing all memories of their deepest love relationships is a good idea, so we're less inclined than Joel to be seduced by the procedure or to invest much in its outcome. Likewise, a twist involving Dunst's character may be interesting, but it, like too much of the material involving the technicians and doctor, never carries much weight.
On the flip side, Kaufman finally has come up with a resolution that raises a movie's emotional ante instead of dissipating it. The satisfying payoff crystallizes Kaufman's themes without simplifying the characters' feelings and desires.
Joel and Clementine are never more alive for us than in those final compelling minutes. As Kaufman and Gondry know all too well, we humans function best with some clouds in the sky and spots on our minds.
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"
Directed by Michel Gondry; written by Charlie Kaufman; photographed by Ellen Kuras; edited by Valdis Oskarsdottir; production designed by Dan Leigh; music by Jon Brion; produced by Steve Golin, Anthony Bregman. A Focus Features release; opens Friday, March 19. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (language, some drug use, sexual content).
Joel Barish - Jim Carrey
Clementine Kruczynski - Kate Winslet
Mary - Kirsten Dunst
Stan - Mark Ruffalo
Patrick - Elijah Wood
Dr. Howard Mierzwiak - Tom Wilkinson