Not wanting to curse Charlie Kaufman with too much praise, I’m tempted to say that his nonexistent twin Donald is the best American screenwriter since Preston Sturges. Donald won’t let the comparison upset him. As you may recall from Adaptation, he is not the type to fret about living up to his reputation, or anything else; and besides, he’s nonexistently dead, having been murdered in the last reel of his only film. Let Donald be the genius; or say that some random puppetmaster is responsible for what Kaufman writes, controlling him from within as in Being John Malkovich; or pretend that his scripts, though outwardly witty and inventive, are in fact damnable instruments of violence, like Chuck Barris’s TV shows in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
Better yet, wipe all praise for Kaufman from your memory, after the example of his unforgettable new film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Even Sturges couldn’t have gotten away with that title. It’s from Alexander Pope: “Eloisa to Abelard,” a poem that previously worked its way into Being John Malkovich. In that Kaufman script, the puppetmaster performed Eloisa’s story for a streetcorner audience, and got popped on the nose for his trouble. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman’s character Clementine (Kate Winslet) aspires to the pristine oblivion that Eloisa desires; and like Eloisa–like Kaufman’s character Joel (Jim Carrey)–she, too, gets popped on the nose (figuratively speaking), not by any outside force but by her own “loose soul unbounded.” Pretty fancy stuff, for a sci-fi romantic comedy.
The sci-fi element is a new medical procedure, performed out of a suspiciously shabby second-floor office somewhere on Long Island. Clementine visited this clinic after breaking up with Joel, so she could have him erased from her memory. Upon learning that she dumped him so radically, the outraged Joel now decides he’ll do the same to her. “Is there any risk of brain damage?” he asks during his consultation. “Technically speaking,” the doctor replies, “the procedure is brain damage.” To make the patient more comfortable (or to save on office rent?), the actual erasing is done at night in the victim’s home, by a couple of slacker technicians whose behavior, in other movies, would be construed as felonious entry and assault. Although some computers are in evidence, the main equipment turns out to be a metal helmet that resembles a colander, and that makes the supine, unconscious Joel look like a little boy playing Flash Gordon.
The methods to which Joel has resorted may seem crude and desperate, but they’re nothing compared with his behavior. As the action shifts to the inside of his mind (where much of the movie will now play out), you watch him live again through a series of fast-fading moments with Clementine, each of which turns out to be dominated by his own nastiness. The walls of rooms fly apart around him, faces melt into unformed wax, rows of book covers turn a uniform white; and as these things vanish, so too does Joel’s memory of his brutal coldness toward Clementine, his unforgivable insults. The effective target of the brain-wipe, apparently, is not the pain that she caused him, but his knowledge of the suffering he inflicted on her. It’s no wonder, then, that he begins softening toward her, as guilt loosens its grip; and when, by way of plot complication, the dreaming Joel hears his technicians talk about Clementine, it’s no wonder that their spookily echoing voices move him to resist the procedure.