Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Entertainment Weekly theorized in its post-Oscar issue that, due to factors like the Oscar broadcast being moved up to February and the brouhaha over screener tapes of to-be-considered movies, all the Oscar-bait films would no longer be released in December, but spread out in the year, to give voters more time to see them. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” puts this theory to the test. It is worthy of nominations for directing, editing, cinematography and screenplay, and perhaps some acting nods, too — and here it is being released in the barren wasteland of March.

It was directed by Michel Gondry, though that probably doesn’t tell you much (he’s mostly done music videos); however, it was written by Charlie Kaufman, and that probably tells you plenty. His other screenplays, “Being John Malkovich, “Human Nature” (which Gondry also directed), “Adaptation” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” are renowned for their brainily funny executions of exceedingly bizarre premises. “Eternal Sunshine” fits right in there, but it also has far more emotional resonance and honest humanity than any of his previous, jokey-silly work.

The high concept this time is that a company called Lacuna has developed a means of erasing specific parts of people’s memories — ideal for that post-breakup anguish, where you wish you could just forget the person altogether. You give Lacuna all the physical items that remind you of the offender, and they use those to find and eradicate the memories attached to him or her. Even a future meeting with the person won’t trigger any memories, because there are no memories to trigger. They’re gone, man.

Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), a neurotic, shy fellow, learns all this the hard way when he tries to talk to his bohemian ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) and she seems not to recognize him. Mutual friends reluctantly fill him in on what happened. Enraged and hurt that she would go to such extremes — I mean, what ever happened to just burning the love letters and eating ice cream? — Joel sets out to have HER erased from HIS memory, too, only to discover while in the process that perhaps even painful memories ought to be retained.

Here, at last, is a performance from Jim Carrey that actually blends his comedic and dramatic abilities rather than ignoring one or the other. As we follow the memory technicians (played by Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo) backwards through Joel’s failed relationship with Clementine, Carrey exhibits the entire bittersweet spectrum of emotions, from elation to agony and back again, that love produces. And when the situation calls for it, he breaks out his mad comedy skillz, most amusingly in a scene where he re-enacts a memory from when Joel was 4 years old.

And Kate Winslet is on fire, giving unquestionably her best performance since “Titanic” and perhaps her best ever. Clementine is free-spirited and impulsive (of course; those are the only kind of women that anxious, repressed men are allowed to meet in the movies), and Winslet is positively radiant with energy and comedic passion. I don’t recall ever liking her as much as I did here.

Joel’s memory-erasing process comprises most of the film, and director Gondry uses every cinematic trick in the book to create a brilliantly imaginative interior map of the character’s mind, particularly in showing the dissolution of the Clementine-centered memories. Joel dashes across a train station with Clementine, with bystanders disappearing one by one as the scene is erased from his memory, Clementine last. Elsewhere, he speaks to her in a Barnes & Noble, and we slowly realize the titles are disappearing from the books’ spines as they talk. One clever device after another is used, some funny, some poignant, as she is gradually taken out of his mind. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras and editor Valdis Oskarsdottir do inventive work in keeping up with Gondry’s frenetic, ingenious vision.

I thought the film’s underlying sadness reminded me a bit of “Punch-Drunk Love,” and then I notice that film and this one had the same composer, Jon Brion. I made a note of his score for “Punch-Drunk Love,” and I did the same again here, not realizing it was the same artist. His work in both cases is wistful and evocative, astutely underlining the tones of the films.

But in the end, “Eternal Sunshine” is mostly a comedy, even if the humor is tinged with longing and regret. Joel asks the Lacona founder Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) whether there’s any risk of brain damage with the procedure, and Mierzwiak replies, “Well, technically, the procedure IS brain damage.” The technicians, aided by Kirsten Dunst as the receptionist and Ruffalo’s girlfriend, are young slackers who treat their jobs with only basic seriousness, suggesting what I think is Kaufman’s attitude, too: This is heavy stuff, but it sure is fun to mess around with it.

The movie is so inventive and beautiful that I don’t see how it can be overlooked when next year’s awards are given out. If something this good can emerge in March, then perhaps we are in for a great year at the movies. It gives me hope, anyway.

A (1 hr., 48 min.; R, a handful of F-words, some other profanity, a little sexuality.)