In Being John Malkovich, which has become the postmodern cinema bible since its fin-de-millennium release, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman riffed beautifully on personality, self-image and celebrity. In Adaptation, he turned his own writer's block into a self-indulgent mess. Now, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman throws together a bunch of ideas and concepts that ultimately seem more like Saturday's leftovers than an exotic smorgasbord. His new movie is mildly entertaining until you catch on to its looping double helix of a plot, at which point it becomes somewhat trite and dull despite its deft playing.
To stay connected to Eternal Sunshine -- the title borrows from a heroic couplet by Alexander Pope -- you have to believe in the central relationship of its protagonists, and that's hard to do without pitying them: Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) is a dreary fellow who takes no risks, and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) is a self-absorbed flake who changes her hair color regularly (blue, orange, unnatural red) and breaks into deserted houses just for fun.
He believes Valentine's Day is a holiday "invented by greeting-card companies to make people feel like crap." She ingratiates herself into his life with vociferous verve, admits she doesn't know what she likes from one moment to the next, and later tells him, "I'm just a fucked-up girl looking for my own peace of mind." A guy would have to be awfully pathetic to get involved with a girl like that. So far, so good.
But Eternal Sunshine has a twist: When their relationship ends, each partakes of Lacuna, a process that wipes your mind of memories that you want to forget. Clementine, in pain over their breakup, wipes out Joel. So Joel decides to get the process, only his procedure doesn't go as well, thanks in part to the two libidinous lab technicians (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood). This allows Kaufman and director Michel Gondry -- who's directed BjÃ¶rk videos and Kaufman's amusing evolution comedy Human Nature -- to really confuse everything by leaping from memory to memory inside Joel's figuratively severed head, where authentic, imagined and alternative realities begin to battle for dominance.
Kaufman makes movies that revolve around the idea of "life" -- i.e., the "self," a word without which he wouldn't exist -- as a mental condition more than a phenomenon. In other words: We're all in our heads. This is interesting, to a point, and so far that point is Being John Malkovich, to which the morose Eternal Sunshine adds little vis-Ã -vis its author's canon. In fact, the greatest insight it gave me was how I could so easily imagine Nicolas Cage (the star of Adaptation) and John Cusack (the star of Malkovich) playing Carrey's role, thus inviting the concept of a "Charlie Kaufman Actor." Spotless or not, that boggles the mind.