March 27, 2004
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Or, Love in the Age of Alzheimers
Here’s a superlative for you: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the cleverest movie I’ve seen that didn’t sacrifice any of its beauty or truth to be so. The movie just clicks together, equally satisfying as an intellectual exercise and an emotional trip. I will not mess with Charlie Kaufman, for he is clearly my master.
Michel Gondry does an excellent job with the material — and what else would you expect? The man’s brilliant! — but there are a few things I’ll fault him for. The headline of my critique reads “Gondry Shows Too Much Restraint.” It’s subtitled, “Jim Carrey Is Perfectly Serviceable, But Why Not Get An Actor?” Oh, and handheld camerawork needs to be seriously fined by the FCC, ‘cause if I leave another frickin’ movie with a dull headache, there will be problems.
Most of the restraint works exceptionally well. Where the movie could be flashy, it never is. The gimmicks of the script and camera never feel like gimmicks, or at least you never resent them for being gimmicks, because they serve real emotional purposes. And yet, those purposes are never explicit. Gondry never really pushes to make you laugh or cry or grit your teeth or whatever, and that seems rare. He just paints a picture, and lets Kaufman’s story take you where it will. But that approach brings one drawback — there’s no catharsis. When I was finally ready to let go and really approach the movie’s core in one big, perfect, emotional moment, Gondry let me down. Maybe this is a personal quibble, and it’s pretty minor, but Gondry has the opportunity for one perfect searing moment that would have been so satisfying and affecting, but he doesn’t take it. Instead, before the scene reaches any real pitch, Jim Carrey starts doing his “I-am-not-Jim-Carrey” bit, and says, “It’s OK,” and the scene kind of dribbles away lamely.
Really, though. Carrey did a fine job of not being Jim Carrey. Unfortunately, he clearly expended all his efforts on not being Jim Carrey, leaving very little energy left to act, or inhabit an actual recognizable or empathetic character, or any of that stuff that actual actors have to do. I submit, and Robin will quibble, but I submit that really any genuine dramatic talent could have done a better job in Carrey’s role than Carrey, because he would have done something more with it than pretend he wasn’t a manic comedian trying desperately to play against type.
OK, except Tobey Maguire, who I believe has genuine dramatic talent, which unfortunately is only good for playing one role. Which unfortunately people keep hiring him to play. And no, I didn’t see Seabiscuit. Yes, I’m sure it was a good movie. But so was Wonder Boys and so was Cider House Rules and so was October Sky, and the fact remains that Tobey Maguire has played exactly one role in his overearnest and unassuming career.
Last point: DO NOT READ ANY OTHER REVIEWS OF THIS MOVIE. Seriously. I thought the film critics were revealing minor plot elements, but they were casually dropping endings and major plot twists. I would have enjoyed the movie even more without that foreknowledge.