When we first meet sad sack New Yorker Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), his voiceover tells us that it is Valentine's Day, 2004, as he spontaneously skips work and takes a train out to Montauk, Long Island instead. Wandering the empty beach, he bumps into blue-haired free spirit Clementine (Kate Winslet), and they wind up spending 24 hours in each other's company. Though they obviously hit it off, there's something uneasy about their sudden bond.
Moments later, we have either flashed forward or flashed back in time, for Joel is moping about having broken up with Clementine after a long, unhappy relationship. What happened?
We soon discover along with Joel that Clementine has gone to a screwball hole-in-the-wall clinic called Lacuna, where she has had all memories of their life together erased from her mind. Heartbroken, Joel checks into Lacuna himself and requests the same operation. While Lacuna's rogues' gallery of technicians (a casting director's dream: Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Kirsten Dunst) work on Joel's brain as he sleeps, we dive into his subconscious to watch as memory after bitter memory dissolves around him.
Charlie Kaufman has quickly established himself as Hollywood's favorite pop surrealist screenwriter, and his shtick consists of getting into the heads of self-obsessed creative types – often literally – as they learn to let go of their neurotic tendencies in order to be happy. While this, his latest script, is definitely inventive, he's more or less on autopilot.
It is director Gondry who is the unsung hero here. With a reputation as one of the world's most visually creative music video directors (Björk, Chemical Brothers, White Stripes, etc.), he's that rare filmmaker who actually embraces visual effects as an art form. It must have been hard to find a feature film that suited Gondry's eclectic style (his debut, Human Nature, also written by Kaufman, was poorly received), but Eternal Sunshine seems tailor-made for him – indeed, he shares story credit with Kaufman – and fans of his work will be pleased.
However, when all is said and done, Eternal Sunshine is, ironically, forgettable.
For sure, it's entertaining, with fine performances and terrific production values (Gondry assembled the hippest crew around, including cinematographer Ellen Kuras and composer Jon Brion), but after the credits roll, there isn't much to dwell on.
The main problem is that there is no chemistry between Joel and Clementine. Whether this is the fault of Carrey and Winslet, or of Gondry, or of Kaufman himself, I'm not sure. But so much of the story depends on the few happy memories that this star-crossed couple shared, and unfortunately they seem like such a poor fit that it's hard to want them to get back together. (Without revealing too much, the plot involves Joel having second thoughts about his memory erasure – in the middle of the process itself.) If they seemed truly in love, the sweet sentiment of the film would've had greater impact.
As it stands, the secondary characters are far more intriguing, their emerging stories far more interesting. Because so little is done with Joel and Clementine (and how can it, really, when the bulk of their story unfolds in Joel's subjective memories?), they become a generic couple, and a lousy one at that. Instead of feeling moved by film's end, I found myself thinking, as Clementine says of Joel, that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is merely "nice".