Thursday, March 18, 2004

Lacuna Matata

Movie: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Posted on Thu, Mar 18, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 3.50

Breathe easy: The second pairing of writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry is significantly better than 2001's "Human Nature." Then again, that's not a tough record to beat. Nature was an unmitigated disaster, one of a small handful of movies that have made me question the necessity of remaining in my seat to the bitter end before penning their death notices. "Sunshine" proves that Gondry and Kaufman can do good (if not great) work together, as long as they don't get in over their heads -- or conscript Patricia Arquette to sing a song about body hair.

Instead, the new film gives us Jim Carrey as one Joel Barish, a polite introvert recovering from a regrettable affair with a kooky, "vindictive little bitch" (Kate Winslet). After their breakup, Joel learns, his gal Clementine retained the services of the Lacuna company, a personal-services firm that helps the emotionally wounded erase their memories of particularly painful relationships. Gradually adjusting to the idea that he's become a literal nonperson to Clem, Joel decides to reciprocate by having her wiped from his own cranium. All it's going to take is an overnight session with Lacuna's slightly sleazy staff (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson).

Putting this conceptual ball into motion are several scenes of artsy inscrutability -- seldom has a mainstream film so delighted in making us wonder what in hell is going on. Yet the ensuing cerebral romp is nowhere near as complex. For the majority of "Sunshine," Joel is flat-on-his-back unconscious as his psyche thrashes about within him, revisiting his time with Clementine and perhaps seeking asylum from the coming purge. The meat of the movie, in other words, is a medley of the mental hide-and-seek games Kaufman used so sparingly (and thus effectively) in "Being John Malkovich." Beneath the metaphysical commotion, one realizes, is a fairly flimsy story -- one originally suggested by Gondry, who is listed as co-plotter. Kaufman's embellishing job is less than total, betraying only miserly hints of his usually sparkling comic dialogue.

As such, the film works mostly as a showcase of visual wizardry. Buildings collapse, faces lose their features and book titles blur before our eyes as the unforgiving Lacuna process strips Joel of his "undesirable" recollections. To Gondry's credit, not one technique is used twice; to Carrey's credit, he doesn't act like Jim Carrey at all -- until the story takes Joel into a Freudian ground zero that thankfully lasts no longer than any of the other, less slapstick vignettes. The positively sunny payoff, meanwhile, makes fools of those reviewers who were determined to see a nasty twist in the similarly optimistic "Adaptation." Sometimes even Kaufman isn't being ironic, and anyone who opined differently may be wishing for the Lacuna technology to be available sooner rather than later.


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