If films about coping with memory loss and/or reverse-order storytelling now constitute a mini-genre, then pic is arguably the best of the lot. Second collaboration between screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry is a romance. Significant favorable critical reaction will trigger strong initial biz among discerning auds for Focus.

If films about coping with memory loss and/or reverse-order storytelling now constitute a mini-genre, then “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is arguably the best of the lot. It is certainly the most emotionally resonant, as the culmination of all the cinematic sleight-of-hand in this second collaboration between screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry is a romance that winds up at the most seductive destination for a love story — the beginning. Significant favorable critical reaction will trigger strong initial biz among discerning audiences for this Focus release, but ultimate B.O. will depend upon whether mainstream Jim Carrey fans support the star’s most overt departure from his usual manic fare.

The previous Kaufman-Gondry collaboration, “Human Nature,” repped the least successful of Kaufman’s distinctive pieces to reach the screen, both artistically and commercially. Pair seems ideally matched this time out, however, as the self-conscious cleverness of the concept is equally balanced by human concerns fleshed out by first-rate actors, especially Kate Winslet in her most vibrant perf since “Heavenly Creatures.”

Still, it can’t be doubted that, for all those who are turned on by the exceptionally fluent, New Wavy excitement of the filmmaking style, as many will be put off by the trickery of the storytelling devices and potentially confusing elements.

Seventeen-minute opening sequence charmingly recounts the offbeat beginning of a relationship between Joel (Carrey), an inward, maladroit lad on the verge of passing from post-graduate slovenliness to middle age without ever becoming an adult, and Clementine (Winslet), a bundle of quicksilver spirit whose humor and brashness cover her acknowledged need for an emotional center.

The two meet when Joel impulsively takes a day off to wander around a desolate Montauk, at the eastern tip of Long Island, on Valentine’s Day 2004. It’s only Clementine’s impulsive forward passes that push things along as they proceed from a long train ride to her apartment to a quick trip to frolic the next night on the frozen Charles River in Boston. Prologue creates an arresting sense of potential between the two, with her frisky provocations looking likely to bring him out of his shell just as his quietness might pull her down to earth.

So it’s rather disorienting, post-credits, to see Joel three days before Valentine’s Day approaching Clementine in a familiar way and her not recognizing him, then glimpsing a card from a company called Lacuna to tell him Clementine has just had her memory of him erased from her brain.

In a depression-easing tit-for-tat, Joel visits Lacuna’s modest offices and decides to undergo the procedure himself, even after company topper Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), in answer to Joel’s concerns about possible brain damage, refreshingly confesses, “Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage,” although no more so than a night of drinking, he assures.

Arranged at once, the erasure takes place in Joel’s home, with the patient’s head placed in a modest helmet resembling a professional hairdryer (pic overall wisely minimizes the high-tech side of things). With slightly off-beam technician Stan (Mark Ruffalo) at the controls, Joel’s noggin is probed for memories of Clementine, from the most recent to the earliest; this translates dramatically into the disagreeable scenes of breakup, discord and alienation being played out and erased first, followed by earlier glimpses of domestic happiness and initial bliss.

Reverse trajectory creates an unusual upward swing for the central romance, although it is continually and increasingly poignantly undercut by the knowledge that these special memories — good and bad — are being eradicated forever. This is even noted by the supposedly unconscious Joel, whose session is interrupted by technical gaffes and who, upon arriving at one particularly pleasurable memory, begs to keep just that one.

Through the long night of Joel’s emotional rewind, the distractible Stan is visited by his buddy Patrick (Elijah Wood), who has become Clementine’s somewhat unlikely new suitor; Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Stan’s bouncy girlfriend and receptionist at Lacuna; and, upon the system’s temporary breakdown, Dr. Mierzwiak himself, who before it’s all over is forced to make a startling confession that’s life-altering for him and others.

Manner in which the mental and chronological backpedaling finally dovetails with the present-day opening is sweet and exceedingly satisfying. The narrative contortions and game-playing with time may be extreme, and undoubtedly were arrived at with considerable difficulty, but result feels soothingly graceful as played out onscreen.

Viewers paying only casual attention to pic’s understated time-frame — references to the pre-Valentine’s Day switch and other dates are present, but only in throwaway dialogue — may be confused, and some material, especially some Joel childhood memories with Carrey enacting his character as a 4-year-old on enlarged sets, is downright odd.

But the story’s emotional dynamic is hard to miss, as are its glancing but touching reflections on the centrality of memory in defining one’s personality, and the richness and value of both positive and negative memories in the overall scheme of life.

Although Gondry possesses a strong visual style forged in his celebrated initial career as a musicvid director, his limpid approach here — characterized by subtly controlled hand-held camerawork (marvelously implemented by ace d.p. Ellen Kuras), invigorating jumpcuts and inventive scene transitions — feels like a fusion of the old (French) New Wave and the 30-years-on Asian New Wave best personified by Wong Kar-wai, with a dash of free-form Dogme courtesy of editor Valdis Oskarsdottir and alternative music input from composer Jon Brion. (Final credits tune, “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime,” by James Warren and sung by Beck is catchily seductive on a first listen.)

As Winslet has mentioned, she has the Jim Carrey part here and he’s got her part, and there’s no question that she makes the most of it in a performance that all but pops off the screen. Changing hair colors on a dime and moods faster than that, Clementine is a live wire who might become exasperating in real life, but onscreen emerges as a life force who simply needs to be channeled and focused to achieve some fulfillment. In a turn that will surprise those who have mostly seen her in period costume roles, Winslet is terrifically witty, spontaneous and emotionally transparent.

By contrast, Carrey has never been so tamped down, so much so that occasionally it’s hard to figure what might have happened to Joel to make him so recessive. Looking rather grubby with his scruffy beard, sunken cheeks and knit hat pulled down over his head, Joel is a man in need of emotional resuscitation, which makes him a plausible target for Clementine’s attentions. In the end, Carrey’s restraint makes a fine fit with Winslet’s abandon.

Supporting roles are filled with colorful and attractive actors who provide additional energy to a film that resides to a considerable extent in a dreamlike state. As noted in some humorously couched dialogue, title derives from a poem by Alexander Pope.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Production

A Focus Features release of an Anonymous Content production in association with This is that. Produced by Steve Golin, Anthony Bregman. Executive producers, David Bushell, Charlie Kaufman, Glenn Williamson, Georges Bermann. Directed by Michel Gondry. Screenplay, Charlie Kaufman, story by Kaufman, Gondry, Pierre Bismuth.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Ellen Kuras; editor, Valdis Oskarsdottir; music, Jon Brion; production designer, Dan Leigh; art director, David Stein; set decorator, Ron von Blomberg; costume designer, Melissa Toth; sound (Dolby/DTS), Thomas Nelson; supervising sound editor, Philip Stockton; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Eugene Gearty; visual effects, Buzz Image Group; visual effects supervisor, Louis Morin; associate producers, Linda Fields Hill, Michael A. Jackman; assistant director, Michael Hausman; casting, Jeanne McCarthy. Reviewed at the Grove, Los Angeles, March 4, 2004. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

Joel Barish - Jim Carrey Clementine Kruczynski - Kate Winslet Mary - Kirsten Dunst Stan - Mark Ruffalo Patrick - Elijah Wood Dr. Howard Mierzwiak - Tom Wilkinson Carrie - Jane Adams Rob - David Cross Hollis - Deirdre O'Connell Joel's Mother - Debbon Ayer Frank - Thomas Jay Ryan

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