Brain cleanser

Writer Kaufman and director Gondry join forces for ‘an uncommonly intriguing movie experience’

ROUGHING IT <br>Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet go to extremes to work through their twisted relationship.

Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet go to extremes to work through their twisted relationship.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet and Elijah Wood. Directed by Michel Gondry. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

It sounds like a crazy idea, an off-kilter romantic comedy with something like a sci-fi twist: The lovers in question get the memories of broken relationships erased from their minds.

And the craziness of Eternal Sunshine runs off in a number of unexpected and mostly interesting directions: (1) Jim Carrey is the star and he’s very good here, but it’s never really a “Jim Carrey movie” in the usual sense of that term; (2) it’s got multiple boy-meets-girl situations, but the question of whether the boy and girl really belong together haunts every potentially romantic scene in the film; (3) the memory-erasure business is both a satirical gimmick and an entryway to some beautifully convoluted mental and emotional spaces, for which the film’s scaled-down special effects prove surprisingly apt and even eloquent.

As a comedy, it’s rather sad and subdued, but that’s also another of the oddities that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, etc.) and director Michel Gondry (Human Nature, from a script by Kaufman) convert into quietly compelling virtues here. Gondry’s spacey-surreal expressionism and Kaufman’s stream-of-consciousness structures complement each other quite effectively, and a cast that also features Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson, Kristen Dunst, Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo does outstanding work with the confusion and conundrum in Kaufman’s characters.

Carrey and Winslet play the mismatched lovers at the heart of the story here, and both are very good. Winslet’s Clementine, aggressive and impulsive in a sometimes self-defeating way, serves as an erratic foil to Carrey’s Joel, who is anxious and needy and somewhat withdrawn. This may be the most restrained and observant characterization Carrey has done in movies, an atypical performance that is funny in small, bittersweet ways and has a sad, tender humanity to it.

As such, Eternal Sunshine seems to me to be on a par with Being John Malkovich as the best of the Kaufman-authored films so far. Its peculiarities and ambiguities will be merely perplexing for some, but Gondry’s inventively sidelong direction of the material offers up an uncommonly intriguing movie experience.