Seriously, Charlie Kaufman is tha man: in the past five years, he has penned the unbelievable scripts for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Beautiful Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In such a short period, he has become Hollywood’s kooky, alternative mastermind, carving his own psychologically silly niche which seems so much fresher and more exciting than just about everything else in theaters. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but I can’t help myself after seeing Sunshine.
This latest film follows Joel (Jim Carrey) as he tries to recover from a breakup with his girlfriend (Kate Winslet) and discovers that she has undergone a treatment to erase their relationship from her memory. Outraged, Joel asks the eccentric but professional Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) to do the same for him. Mierzwiak sends his quirky assistants (Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood), but as these well-meaning technicians attempt to erase Joel’s past, he begins to realize that he still values his rapidly disintegrating memories and tries to hold onto them for as long as possible.
Director Michel Gondry, who helped create the story, takes us back and forth between Joel’s struggling psyche and Mierzwiak’s assistants as they try to finish their job, often meshing these sequences together. On top of this, we begin to follow the twisting relationships among Mierzwiak and his assistants.
Gondry hits us rapidly with Kaufman’s numerous intertwining subplots, and then it is left to us to decipher Sunshine’s fractured chronology and incoherent lapses between imagination, memory, and reality. This is all as confusing as it sounds; however, there is an ideal mix of mystery and resolution, and just enough information to allow us to navigate a little further through Gondry’s maze without being either keyed in too early or lost entirely. We feel like we are unraveling Joel’s fractured memories rather than plowing through a generic Hollywood mystery. And though the film is smart, it’s not too smart; most moviegoers should be able to understand the plot as long as they are awake and are not drunk.
Recent films like Memento, Mulholland Drive, 21 Grams, and Kaufman’s own Adaptation have forced viewers to abandon linear logic to in order to “get” the movie, conditioning audiences to understand so circular a plot. While such labyrinthine structures have been around for a long time, Hollywood is only recently embracing them. Mainstream theaters have begun showing films that might have once been cast aside, with “artsy” films like 21 Grams, Monster, and The Triplets of Belleville gracing local multiplexes. Such is Hollywood’s recent attempt to intellectually legitimize itself. While many of these screenings have been bolstered by Oscar nominations, audiences are clearly looking for less traditional cinema.
This isn’t always a good thing. In a market where “smart” movies are becoming increasingly trendy, we can expect to see a fair share of stupid smart films. Regardless of how disjointed and mazelike their structure, films are still susceptible to generic Hollywood schlock (i.e. The Butterfly Effect). Furthermore, many people have no interest in solving cryptic audio-visual riddles. As popular as smart movies may become, it is unlikely that they will ever replace romantic comedies or big budget action adventures.
A good percentage of moviegoers will have no interest in Kaufman’s work. Those who felt that Being John Malkovich was a little too trippy should probably skip Sunshine altogether. Diehard Carrey fans may also be as disappointed as many Adam Sandler fans were with Punch Drunk Love. This isn’t to say that Carrey doesn’t give a powerfully funny performance; he does, but his work here is quite different from shtick like Ace Ventura and The Mask. In fact, everything about Sunshine is absolutely top rate. If you’re feeling smart and hip, you’ll find nothing better in theaters than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.