His latest film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, finds Kaufman trying hard to live up to his reputation as a cerebral spellbinder. His premise -- about a couple who erase the memories of their love affair -- calls for so many hallucinatory scenes that the script seems merely like an excuse for head trips. But in Kaufman's best work, his dreamlike details contain rich metaphors, and the film eventually sheds light on the fallible nature of love.
Jim Carrey returns to serious-actor mode to play Joel, a bummed-out, ill-shaven single guy. At the beginning of the film he plays hooky from work, impulsively visits the beach at Montauk, N.Y., and meets a gabby, blue-haired woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet). Compared to introverted Joel she's at once flirtatious and abrasive, but the two strangers click.
Soon we discover that not only have Joel and Clementine already met, but they've recently brought a two-year relationship to a bitter end. They've both used the services of a company called Lacuna, which selectively deletes bad memories from your brain.
The film attempts to fill in the narrative blanks with a sequence of confusingly structured flashbacks -- and I can't claim to have sorted them all out. We jump back to Joel's first visit to Lacuna, which turns out to be no high-tech sci-fi showroom but an amusingly low-rent office, the kind of place you'd go to have your teeth cleaned if you didn't have dental insurance. Tom Wilkinson plays Lacuna's medical chief with fatherly reassurance, although his technical staff (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst) seems distressingly young and dorky.
Joel relives his memories of Clementine, in reverse from break-up to first sight, while they're being erased. But during the process he changes his mind and decides to resist. Ever realize that you're dreaming, even when you're still asleep? It's like that: Joel looks unconscious on the outside, but inside he struggles to retain his memories of Clementine before they disappear.
Eternal Sunshine follows Joel through his increasingly scrambled memory bank. He recollects a tense dinner with Clementine, but overhears the technicians talking in "real" time. He tries to rescue Clementine by running through Grand Central Station as bystanders disappear one-by-one around them. Freudian symbolism piles up when Joel tries to "hide" Clementine in buried experiences from his childhood. At one point, Carrey plays Joel as a fussy 4-year-old, while Winslet appears as an alluring grown-up friend of Joel's mother.
Kaufman's Achilles' heel is that he tends to throw out his own rulebook, leaving holes in the film's dream logic. In his besieged memories, Clementine talks to Joel as though she understands what's happening in the present -- supposedly his imagination provides her new responses, but it feels like cheating.
Director Michel Gondry opts for weird effects over coherence. Like Spike Jonze, director of Malkovich and Adaptation, Gondry comes from a music video background, which he suppresses to give Kaufman's story a veneer of naturalism. But where Jonze knows how to keep a straight face, Gondry's control slips at times. For instance, the soundtrack music belongs in a wacky thriller.
But Gondry elicits arguably the most restrained yet raw and emotional performance Carrey has ever given. Carrey leaves the contortions to the script and plays Joel's sadness straight. He turns Joel's sullen passive-aggression into active resolve as he clings to his true love.
The hitch for the audience is that Joel and Clementine seem like they're actually better off without each other. She's not a free spirit in the romantic-comedy tradition, but an unhappy, self-destructive woman with an alcohol problem. Winslet makes Clementine realistically prickly, not Hollywood-huggable as she warns Joel not to idealize her. But the actress takes her performance so seriously that it's difficult to like her, and it's hard to root for Joel's efforts to keep their love alive.
Still, Joel fights harder as his worst memories vanish, which might be a subtle point. As the film nears its end, the pace slows enough for the story's serious ideas to catch up. Eternal Sunshine partly comments on mortality and memory diseases like Alzheimer's: When we can't remember our history, we effectively lose our lives. The premise also sets up a wickedly sharp contrast between the exuberance of first love and the hard feelings when love fails.
The film ends on a superficially upbeat note, but like Adaptation's resolution, it's rife with bleak implications. Kaufman's pragmatic attitude about relationships makes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind more than just a whacked-out trip down memory lane.