Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind wants to be a bittersweet comedy about erotic loss and memory loss. But it doesn't have the heart or brain. It does have an idea with so many clever compartments that audiences can unload their emotional baggage into it. And that may be enough to make it a critical and financial hit.
At the movie's core is a company, Lacuna, that wipes selected memories from its customers. Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) has no knowledge of Lacuna's existence until he stumbles upon a card that reads "Clementine Kruczynski has had Joel Barish erased from her memory. Please never mention their relationship to her again." He's just had a lovers' spat with Clementine (Kate Winslet) and has been wondering why and how she managed, swiftly and completely, to drop out of his life. When Joel grasps that this card is for real, anger and hurt propel him into the same process.
Of course, since Eternal is the latest script from Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), nothing unfolds straightforwardly. We learn of the fantastical back story only after Joel and Clementine meet again on Valentine's Day, in the empty beach town of Montauk on Long Island; they experience the same quickening pulse that drew them together in the first place, without realizing there ever was a first place.
This structure should bring out the romantic in the most jaded soul: it answers everyone's hopes that love is true and unchanging, even at the center of a derailed relationship. Kaufman and his director, Michel Gondry, deliver an additional potential twist of poignancy when Joel recognizes that no matter how many painful memories he's accumulated, life with Clementine is preferable to life without her.
Yet this movie about mental blanks has too much of a fill-in-the-blanks feel to it - starting with the characters. Joel, like many a Kaufman hero, is a shaggy, erratically witty grumbler, but with few of the memorable quirks of, say, John Cusack's puppeteer in Malkovich. From the opening moments, when he complains about Valentine's Day as a greeting-card-concocted holiday, he mutters mediocre observational comedy and sub-Woody Allen riffs of self-deprecation (he admits being "constitutionally incapable of making eye contact with a woman I don't know").
Clementine is a sad sack's wish fulfillment: a Barnes and Noble clerk who's also a life-embracing risk-taker with wildly colored hair. She shatters Joel's reticence and perceives his inner good-guyhood.
The actors can't be faulted. Carrey acts low-key without draining himself of energy the way he did in The Truman Show. And Winslet has always had a knack for finding humor at emotional extremes or in the fringes of a boho life: her young-Iris-Murdoch scenes in Iris with Hugh Bonneville were funny and affecting, the way her scenes here with Carrey should be.
The responsibility lies with Kaufman and Gondry, who fail to provide the bits of business and interchanges that would make the couple's affair as precious to us as it is to them. The signature jokes revolve around Huckleberry Hound and "My Darling Clementine." And then there's Clementine's predilection for vivid hair colors - she goes from "blue ruin" to tangerine, and dreams of naming new shades, such as "agent orange."
Kaufman and Gondry could be conducting a comedy lab on whether they can make lame gags spring to life by repeating them from different perspectives. They could also be conducting a romance-movie lab with Clementine's amorous coups; she likes to race into Boston when the Charles River freezes over so she can slip and slide and rest on it with her current beau.
In a bungled subplot, one Lacuna technician, Patrick (Elijah Wood), falls for Clementine and exploits his privileged knowledge to woo her. But Patrick's distant replays of Joel and Clementine's romantic history don't have any comic or emotional clout. They lack the sting of the scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen's Alvy Singer and another lover re-enact the trials he and Annie once had with a lobster. You know there's something wrong when the Patrick and Clementine's breakup is more compelling than their courtship.
Kaufman and Gondry mistake complication for development and layering. The amorous byplay between Lacuna receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst) and ace technician Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and the triangle that develops between them and Lacuna's founding genius Howard (Tom Wilkinson) serve the plot more than the character or themes.
Mary provides the title with a quote from Alexander Pope: "How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot: Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each prayer accepted, and each wish resign'd." (She recites it to impress Howard.) But Dunst has little to do except bounce around in her underwear - until the moviemakers need her to help resolve the plot like a giddy young deus ex machina.
Gondry fluidly manages the jumps in time and point of view; you can enjoy the detailed trickery with which he works out Joel's evaporating memories, as props vanish and sets deteriorate and scenes shift with increasing surreal intensity. And the movie generates a few good, low laughs when Joel, trying to hide Clementine from his mind-wipers, takes her into his boyhood - at one point they share a kitchen-sink bath. But without more depth and inspiration, all this cleverness ultimately goes down the drain.
Starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet
Directed by Michel Gondry
Rated R (language, some drug and sexual content)
Released by Focus Features
Time 108 minutes
Sun Score **