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Review: Let the 'Eternal Sunshine' in

Great Carrey performance, crazy script carry film

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

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Jim Carrey
Kate Winslet
Charlie Kaufman
Michel Gondry

(CNN) -- Just four words can sum up "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind": Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman.

This strange and reclusive writer harbors the less-than-spotless mind that brought us "Being John Malkovich" (1999), "Adaptation" (2002) and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (2002) -- and there's not a commercial, mainstream film among his work.

"Eternal Sunshine" reunites him with French director Michel Gondry, who directed Kaufman's script "Human Nature."

While "Eternal Sunshine" is unlikely to be a huge box office blockbuster, it will -- like many of Kaufman's earlier works -- have a strong following and be critically acclaimed. That acclaim will be well deserved, for "Eternal Sunshine" is the most fully realized Kaufman film to date.

In the past, Kaufman has had trouble with the third act. And while the second act in this film goes on way, way too long, there is actually a third act this time around. Not a strong one, but it's there.

In addition to matching Kaufman's wild imagination with equally startling visuals, Gondry has also managed to get the best, most mature and sharply focused performance ever from Jim Carrey, who plays a mild-mannered man named Joel. Gondry also gets a terrific performance from three-time Academy Award nominee Kate Winslet.

Winslet has proven herself over and over again in a wide range of roles, but her portrayal of the free-spirited, free wheeling Clementine -- who falls in love with Joel -- is remarkable, and her American accent is flawless.

Backwards reeled the mind

Wilkinson and Carrey
Tom Wilkinson plays a quack, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, who has invented a way to remove memories.

(WARNING: As often happens with reviews, some plot points are revealed in the following -- and with Charlie Kaufman, almost anything seems to be a plot point. If you'd like to go in fresh, stop reading now.)

Leave it to Kaufman to have the nerve to unfold the storyline backwards. The movie's beginning is really the ending, and then the story goes back to when the couple fell in love in the first place -- and then it begins to jump back and forth.

The basic premise is also pure Kaufman. It seems in the not-too-distant future a company called Lacuna -- run by a hapless quack, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, played by Tom Wilkinson -- can erase from a person's memory any unpleasant experiences.

The unpredictable Clementine suddenly decides she's over Joel and, without his knowledge, has him erased from her brain. Horrified and deeply hurt, Joel decides to do the same, and has Clementine cleansed from his memory. Put in charge of the erasing are three Lacuna employees: Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Elijah Wood, in his first major post-"Lord of the Rings" role), and Kirsten Dunst.

The movie is quick with the unexpected line. When asked if erasing his memory could cause brain damage, the doctor blithely informs Joel that, technically speaking, the whole process is brain damage -- "although no more so than a night of heavy drinking."

Midway through what should be a standard procedure -- Joel is hooked up to a big machine that looks like an overgrown football helmet -- things begin to go very wrong. Joel decides he doesn't want to erase Clementine and begins to fight against the technicians. The film now becomes a cat-and-mouse game between Joel, fighting to keep his remaining memories of Clementine, and the people hired to make them disappear.

In Joel's mind Clementine still exists, and she begins to help him hide from the people trying to erase her. This is where things start to get very strange, and this is where you'll just have to see the movie for yourself, since it defies description.

Inside a world

Ruffalo, Wood
Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood are offbeat lab technicians.

The acting is uniformly good. Dunst delivers a well-measured and adult performance. Ruffalo gives a deft, if somewhat wacky, turn as the confused technician more intent on bedding Dunst's character than doing his job. And Carrey and Winslet, as noted, are allowed here to explore the kind of roles they have rarely been given.

Kudos must also go to the director of photography, Ellen Kuras. Her unique camera work, in conjunction with Gondry's vision, keeps the audience inside a world that -- on the surface -- should never make any sense whatsoever.

In addition to Kaufman, story credit is also given to Gondry and Pierre Bismuth, but the finished product is pure Charlie. Kaufman's films are not a passive pastime. You have to work at keeping track of what's going on -- if you're looking for mindless entertainment, keep looking.

Along with Spike Jonze, David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson -- to name a few -- Kaufman is truly one of the freshest voices in Hollywood today.

Oh, in case you're wondering, the title comes from a poem by Alexander Pope.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" opens nationwide on Friday, March 19, and is rated R.

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