By Thane Peterson Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, starring Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey, is the first really good Hollywood movie of the year. It's a small-budget film that isn't being heavily marketed or widely released, so the producers are relying on word-of-mouth to boost its box office. I'm happy to do my part: If you catch only a handful of movies each year, this should be on your must-see list.
For starters, Sunshine can't be dismissed as merely "quirky" -- the all-purpose, homogenizing adjective Americans use to categorize any production that's original, personal, and memorable. Yes, Sunshine's main screenwriter was Charlie Kaufman, the talent behind such highly imaginative movies as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.
Quirkiness, however, is the least of this movie's many great qualities. It's a wonderful jumble of high and low culture, propelled by literary devices and filled with literary allusions (the title is from a 1777 poem by Alexander Pope). It's also unpretentious entertainment reminiscent of such movies as Groundhog Day and Memento.
LESS CREEPY CARREY. Far from being a one-man movie -- "a Charlie Kaufman production" -- Sunshine is a collaboration among many unusual talents, including cinematographer Ellen Kuras, co-writer and director Michel Gondry -- a young Frenchman best known for directing music videos -- and French visual artist Pierre Bismuth, who came up with the original concept and is listed as a co-writer. On another level, it's also a touching love story anchored by a terrific performance by Winslet, who plays Clementine, and an uncharacteristically subdued turn by Carrey. He abandons his usual disturbing creepiness and plays Joel Barish, Clementine's boyfriend, with considerable sensitivity. Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count On Me) and Kirsten Dunst (Spiderman) are excellent in supporting roles.
The basic story: One Valentine's Day, Clementine, a flighty, outgoing Barnes & Noble clerk on Long Island, hits on Joel, an introverted, perpetually daunted office worker who can barely imagine talking to a woman. They fall in love, but by Valentine's Day a year or two later their relationship is on the rocks.
The impulsive Clementine pays a company called Lacuna Inc. to use an innovative procedure to erase all trace of Joel from her memory. Joel finds out what she has done and decides to undergo the same procedure. The action of the movie mainly takes place in Joel's mind as he realizes mid-brainwashing that he wants the procedure to stop because he really loves Clementine. Powerless to stop the brainwashing, he desperately struggles to preserve some memory of her in the recesses of his mind.
IMPRESSION VS. REALITY. The various antic subplots involving Lacuna Inc. are worthy of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Stan, a Lacuna technician played by Ruffalo, has the hots for Mary, a receptionist played by Dunst. They have a tryst at Barish's apartment while the poor fellow is having his mind cleansed. It turns out Mary was once in love with Lacuna's founder -- played by Tom Wilkinson -- who then convinced her to have their affair erased from her memory. Meanwhile Patrick, another Lacuna technician (played by Elijah Wood), falls in love with Clementine during her brainwashing procedure and tries to woo her, using Barish's journal as a blueprint.
Zany as this all sounds, the movie's literary elements are serious and quite effective. As with Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, the story is structured in a circle. It starts and ends with exactly the same episode, leaving you with the feeling that the action could endlessly repeat itself.
Sunshine is also overtly -- if often comically -- Proustian in the way it delves into the nuances and subtle betrayals of memory. For instance, a version of the two lovers' first meeting is in the middle of the movie -- but I, for one, was confused as to whether it was the "real" version and if it was primarily Joel's or Clementine's memory.
Kaufman has said in preparing to write the Sunshine screenplay he took his wife out to dinner one night and tape recorded their conversation without telling her why. The next morning, they each wrote down their memories of what was said during the evening. Each had a completely different recollection -- and neither account was very accurate when they listened to the tape recording. Kaufman has said he was "trying to figure out what memory feels like." To me, that's what the movie is about -- the impression of memory, as opposed to the scientific reality.
SPONTANEOUS MOMENTS. Another thing that raises this movie to a higher level than most Hollywood productions is the cinematography. The use of light is absolutely brilliant. Despite the title, the movie has very little bright sunshine. Most of the outside scenes were shot on bleak, blue- and gray-tinged winter days. In one sequence, in which Clementine and Joel lie on their backs on Boston's frozen Charles River at night, the light seems to come down from the sky, and there's a big hole in the ice surrounded by spidery cracks, as if a meteor had fallen. Each of the indoor scenes -- for instance, in Lacuna's dentist-style offices and Barish's dreary apartment -- has a distinctive tone.
Kaufman and Gondry went to great lengths to accentuate the movie's moods. Hoping to capture as many moments of spontaneity as possible, Gondry often filmed without letting the actors know when the camera was running. Kaufman and Gondry persuaded Carrey to shoot the whole movie without wearing makeup -- giving him exactly the unwashed, faintly oily look his character called for. Gondry also shot one scene with Ruffalo locked in a closet. He later explained to the bewildered actor that this altered the performances of the other actors because they knew he was in there. Presumably, Gondry wanted to add urgency to their acting.
Of course, you're not really aware of most of this as you're watching the movie. And the writers are quick to poke fun at the movie's potentially pretentious highbrow elements. The quotation from Pope that gives the film its title, for instance, is delivered by Dunst's character, who reads it in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and mistakenly refers to the author as "Pope Alexander."
In the end, Sunshine aspires to be more Groundhog Day than Proust. But the literary elements are always just under the surface, whether you're aware of them or not. They're one reason the movie grabs you and sticks with you long after most Hollywood productions would have faded from memory. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online