“Written by Charlie Kaufman.” For those familiar with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, those four words express an enormous amount of information about what you will experience when sitting down for his latest, impossibly difficult to describe, wholly brilliant film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Kaufman has achieved something rare in Hollywood. People refer to films he’s written as “Kaufman films.” They are not referred to by their director’s name (although Spike Jonze arguably deserves props for Malkovich), nor their lead actor’s name. Like veteran screenwriters David Mamet and Paul Schrader, Kaufman writes films that radiate such a creative and individualistic force of nature that they could belong to no other soul than that which created them. It’s impossible to pick out the influences, to dissect them and say which “school” or which “genre” they belong to. In the arts, that’s generally the definition of “genius.” Although that word is overused to sickening effect to describe anyone and anything with the least bit of talent these days, Kaufman earns the tag with every screenplay he pens.
Evidence of his genius is how ineffectual, how far off the mark one is when trying to summarize or review his plots for people who haven’t seen one of his films. Does saying that Being John Malkovich is about a puppeteer who finds a portal into the title character’s mind actually tell you what that movie was about? Well, sort of. But not really. By summing up Adaptation as a movie about a screenwriter’s struggle to adapt a book about orchids, have you actually conveyed anything meaningful or consequential about that film? No. The heart and soul of those movies, and the heart and soul of Eternal Sunshine, cannot be conveyed with a scene-by-scene wrap-up. As a matter of fact, it’s unfortunate that I have to tell you anything about the film other than that you should see it. There are so many surprises, so many loop-de-loops and back flips and sheer delights of discovery in this film that it’s unfortunate that any of its contents will be spilled out of sequence and without context. That includes the opening scenes, in which what you think is happening is not really happening that way at all.
The opening, with Jim Carrey’s character Joel getting his day going, running off to greet his commuter train, is about the only part of the narrative that unfolds according to any kind of cinematic convention. On that day, while sleepily waiting for the train that has taken him hundreds of times to some shitty job across town, Joel Barish throws caution to the wind and decides he’s going to play hooky. Taking another train, he meets Clementine Kruczynski, portrayed with punk-rock exuberance and a perfect American accent by British actress Kate Winslet. The two don’t so much as meet as Clementine throws herself at him. Shy and withdrawn Joel, while nervous and cautious at the intrusion, seems to warm to this outgoing and outspoken distraction from his woes. With blue hair, a quick wit and sexy charm, Clementine befriends her “opposite” and they wind up spending a weird and romantic “date” in the Long Island town of Montauk. The town will play a very pivotal and bittersweet role at the end of the film.
I wish I could just stop here, and let every single moment following these rather run-of-the-mill romantic comedy opening scenes just roll over you like a bulldozer. What follows will knock you silly, upending every single concept of storytelling that you’re probably used to. The obligation to tell you that this wasn’t the first time Joel and Clementine met requires me to tell you the other major plot point of the film.
After a bizarre rejection from Clementine at the video store she works at, Joel learns through his friends that Clementine has erased him from her mind. Livid, he decides he’ll have the procedure done as well. But once the process starts, Joel realizes he doesn’t want to erase his dear Clementine. His struggle to keep his memories is pure Kaufman, a story in which time and memory as well as the constructs of love and regret and loss are blasting at you from all sides.
This is really where the film begins, and where this review will end, because it would be a crime to transcribe the phantasmagoric journey that Joel is subjected to. Let Kaufman, the genius, tell the story in his own way. We, dear friends, simply aren’t worthy.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].