Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind may be the first movie I’ve seen that bends your brain and breaks your heart at the same time. The screenplay, by Charlie Kaufman, keeps whirling the audience into new and unexpected dimensions, yet you never question where you are, because there’s an uncanny, seductive logic to every twist. Kaufman doesn’t just think outside the box — he makes you think that the box is scarcely worth saving. Early on, Joel (Jim Carrey), shy and gangly, with a shock of hair that covers his forehead, has a mysterious, itchy compulsion to ditch the New York commuter platform where he’s on his way to work. He squeezes his way onto a train that takes him to the east end of Long Island, and though the whim makes no sense, either to him or to the audience, the moment that he spies the sexy, blue-haired Clementine (Kate Winslet), a neurotically intense motormouth flirt who chats him up on the train, it feels like destiny.
So does everything else in the movie. ”Eternal Sunshine” begins, in effect, at the bitter end of Joel and Clementine’s relationship, when he discovers that she has had her memories of him entirely erased. Devastated, Joel pays a visit to Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), the dowdy mad scientist of memory elimination, who occupies what looks like a modest dentist’s office. Once there, Joel decides to undergo the procedure himself. As he lies, first in the office, then in his bed, in a trancelike sleep, his head strapped into a giant silver cap that is hooked to blinking machines run by Mierzwiak’s tech-dweeb assistants (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood), his memories don’t die hard. They die softly, sadly. They’re like peak moments of lost love unspooling in the revival theater of his mind.
After ”Being John Malkovich” and ”Adaptation,” we expect teeming, manic-to-the-max invention from Charlie Kaufman, only this time he’s not just playing, he’s searching. He has become the most exciting screenwriter in America by doing something that most writers only dream of: He gets the audience addicted to the freedom and craziness of his mind. ”Eternal Sunshine” gives off a dizzy romantic charge, as Kaufman and the director, Michel Gondry (the two collaborated in 2001 on the top-heavy trifle ”Human Nature”), lead the audience on a puckish, ingenious science-fiction ride that is really a journey into the beauty — and fragility — of connection.
Each of Joel’s memories unfolds before us at the moment it’s being wiped out. In something like reverse order, we watch the story of his relationship with Clementine: how it flowered and degenerated between one Valentine’s Day and the next. The potato dolls in Clementine’s apartment; the night she and Joel lay on the frozen Charles River; the day he dodged his fears of fatherhood by telling her she wasn’t stable enough to raise a child; Clementine’s psychedelic series of changing hair dyes; the fights and cuddles — as Joel remembers everything, he enters into, and interacts with, those same memories, pleading with them to change in some way. But they can’t.
”Eternal Sunshine” has a lilting psychological fancy, yet it works because it’s also rough and real and intimate and alive, with Gondry using a handheld camera to stage backward leaps in time that feel, in execution if not tone, highly influenced by ”Memento.” Kaufman, never shy about excess, keeps multiplying the structural complications. A subplot with Kirsten Dunst as another Mierzwiak assistant is nifty and clever; the one with Elijah Wood’s Patrick exploiting the memory procedure for his own gain is a tad underdeveloped. Yet the cumulative impact leaves the audience happily and profoundly buzzed.
Carrey has often played timid, stammering nerds, but this is the first time he has eradicated any hint of stylization. He makes Joel a deeply vulnerable ordinary man, too ”nice” for his own good, haunted by dreams of romance he’s scarcely bold enough to voice to himself. We can see why he’s attracted to Clementine — she’s the sort of highly eroticized, let’s-try-anything girl who’s a geek’s idea of romantic danger — and, more mysteriously, why she digs him: The way Winslet plays the role, her volatility masks a deeply fractured soul. These two couldn’t be more different, yet deep down they’re matching wrecks.
The idea of blanking out every last thought of a failed romance, even if it means losing pleasure to get rid of pain, has a blithe topical spookiness; it’s like an Orwellian satire of a world moderated — neutered — by psychiatric drugs. Kaufman and Gondry, though, aren’t out to score didactic points but to dramatize how even our closest relationships are, in effect, stories that unfold in the ways we tell them to ourselves. The ”flaws” of Joel and Clementine’s edgy bond create the very electricity that holds it together. Joel, embracing his memories, comes to appreciate the fragile glory of each and every moment simply for being that moment. Watching ”Eternal Sunshine,” you don’t just watch a love story — you fall in love with what love really is.