Charlie Kaufman's screenplay titles—Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, and the new Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind—each have either a metaphysical or an anthropological ring, either of which amounts to a detached sense of looking in from the outside. Not that his films are clinical or devoid of feeling; quite the opposite. One stop removed from the human psyche, Kaufman can examine its most rudimentary needs and desires, the sensory impulses that light up in response to love, loss, and the hope for transcendence.
Perhaps his least accessible work to date, and arguably his most audacious and deeply felt, Eternal Sunshine spends much of its run time in a constant state of disorientation, rattling around inside the human conscience like a rat in a maze. As directed by music-video wizard Michel Gondry, whose gift for plasticity gets more of a workout than it did in his underrated but less-inspired Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine has the go-for-broke excitement of an early Nicolas Roeg movie like The Man Who Fell To Earth. Once reality melts into abstraction, the audience is left without a ballast to anchor it firmly in space and time, but Kaufman and Gondry conjure the life of the mind with such imagination and emotion that it's worth taking the leap with them. (WARNING: Eternal Sunshine is best viewed with little advance knowledge of its plot, so those who would rather go on faith are advised to skip the rest of this review.)
Playing against his manic instincts, a subtle, self-effacing Jim Carrey stars as a man saddened to discover that his ex-girlfriend Kate Winslet has had her memories of their relationship erased. In response, he contacts Lacuna, Inc., the outfit responsible for the procedure, and demands to have Winslet removed from his head in turn. Performed on what looks like Atari 2600-level technology by inventor Tom Wilkinson and his team of half-baked colleagues (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Kirsten Dunst), Carrey's brain-fry doesn't go entirely as planned. Instead, he literally races through the recesses of his mind, trying desperately to hold onto memories of Winslet as they're being eradicated.
For most of Eternal Sunshine, Gondry and Kaufman strand Carrey (and the audience) inside the echo chamber of his own head, where reconfigured scenes and moments from his life create a heightened feeling of déjà vu. Through this radical narrative and visual strategy, the film smuggles poignant insights on how even a failed relationship leaves a stain that's not worth blotting out, no matter how painful it is. A surprisingly bittersweet love story at heart, Eternal Sunshine values the sum of experience, which in this case means a thorns-and-all openness to romantic possibilities.