Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, didn’t work for me, despite (or perhaps because of) all the rave reviews it’s received. Since Kate Winslet, who plays hippie-chick Clementine Kruczynski, has always held a special place in my heart-ever since she romped around in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994)-the prospect of her involvement in an obsessive love story with Jim Carrey seemed well-nigh irresistible. So what could possibly go wrong? Or, rather, what did go wrong?
For one thing, Mr. Carrey plays Joel Barish, who is hardly funny at all; instead, he’s a sullen, almost menacingly withdrawn and uncommunicative fellow. In the beginning of the film, we see him struggle out of bed to go to work, commuting by train from Rockville Centre to New York. While standing on the crowded platform in an ugly woolen hat, he suddenly races across the track to catch an empty commuter train going to its last stop at Montauk. From a public phone booth in Montauk, he calls in sick to the office and proceeds to walk whimsically on the lonely, wintry beach. A lone woman, all bundled up in the distance, walks toward him, but he doesn’t acknowledge her because, as he confesses in a voice-over, he’s much too shy and inhibited to make eye contact with a woman he doesn’t know.
Since Ms. Winslet plays the woman, it’s clearly up to her to make the first move if the story is ever going to take off, and she doesn’t disappoint. Indeed, she is so shamelessly aggressive in her pursuit of the terminally reticent Joel that it soon becomes evident-as one reviewer has already noted-that Ms. Winslet has been assigned the obstreperous Jim Carrey part, and Mr. Carrey the almost maidenly Kate Winslet role.
But as abrasive as Clementine becomes in order to force Joel out of his emotional shell, the situation is not directed for laughs. It’s his most “serious” part since Frank Darabont’s The Majestic (2001), and Mr. Carrey is frozen in a humorless frenzy through most of the film. Though Joel and Clem meet “cute” and continue to court “cute” in outlandish seasons and locations, the bulk of the film is concerned with a low-tech sci-fi conceit: A small firm materializes with the technological capacity to erase memories of failed romances from the brains of its embittered clients. First Clem erases Joel from her mind, then Joel accidentally finds out what she did and how she did it, and in retaliation orders the same procedure to zap his memory of her. But halfway through the procedure, Joel changes his mind, thus providing the zaniest part of the movie.
O.K., I know: Sci-fi has never been my cup of tea, and least of all that branch of sci-fi that presumes to tamper with the brain. I don’t know about you, but even before I was operated on for a subdural hematoma a few years ago, I have never been comfortable with the idea of anyone poking around in my skull, or anyone else’s for that matter-onscreen or off. It’s hard enough to remember one’s life experiences as it is, and so I can’t imagine anyone so foolish as to seek scientific (or sci-fi) assistance in paying to forget.
But that isn’t the only problem I had with this movie. Mr. Gondry and Mr. Kaufman are fond of playing games with the audience by only gradually revealing the time reversals involved in the unfolding of the Joel-Clementine relationship. Hence the narrative begins at a point in time when two characters seem to be meeting for the first time, but are actually renewing a romance that’s been artificially erased from each of their memories. Mr. Gondry and Mr. Kaufman add a shaggy-dog element to the sci-fi gimmickry whereby Joel and Clem are chasing each other across fragments of time that eluded the memory erasures.
It just so happens that I am sick of fragmentation as a narrative device. With the speeded-up time machine at their disposal, Mr. Gondry and Mr. Kaufman prevent Joel and Clementine from having the time to establish an emotional rapport that is worth saving or remembering. There is little charm in the coupling and almost no erotic intimacy, just a series of nerve-racking conversational collisions.
As if they were aware of the emotional vacuum at the center of their story, the filmmakers have supplied a tangled subplot involving the shabby, low-rent operators of a psycho-scam called Lacuna. Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) is literally the brains of the outfit, and he’s assisted by two easily distracted technicians, Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood). The only other employee is Mary (Kirsten Dunst), the standard sexpot secretary, who ends up disrupting the entire operation after dalliances with both Stan and her boss. I detected a few titters from the audience over the horny shenanigans of the deviously lusty Lacunae. At least these secondary characters were having the kind of relaxed fun denied the perpetually agitated lead lovers.
Much of my disappointment is directed at the creatively quirky screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who seems to have become the critics’ darling after their slow, grudging approval of two of his previous efforts (both directed by Spike Jonze), Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002). Unlike my colleagues, I liked Adaptation much more than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind . But I am not entirely sure who is to blame. Mr. Carrey and Ms. Winslet have done the best they could with what they were given in terms of nonexistent character development. Ms. Dunst, Mr. Ruffalo and Mr. Wood deserve even higher marks for filling in the margins of their roles with energy and vivacity. I’m afraid that leaves the MTV-trained Mr. Gondry’s direction to take the hit. Perhaps the closet literalist in me was frustrated by the lack of information I was given. For example, we never see where Joel works or what he does for a living. He says at one point that he is living with a woman named Naomi. Does she exist? There is no visual evidence one way or another.
In the years I have tried to communicate what I think and feel about films, I have often said that I am dealing with an art form that may or may not be profound, but certainly is complex. So many things can go wrong, so many intersections of reality and contrivance can become the sites of artistic disaster, and frequent failures are virtually guaranteed.
So how do I know whether a movie clicks or not? About all I can come up with after all these years is to refer to that sector of my spinal column which begins to vibrate when an emotional connection is made with some felicitous conjunction of sound and image, theme and style, narrative and characterization. This has happened to me in the recent past with quirky movies like Lost in Translation , Adaptation and Groundhog Day . It just didn’t happen to me with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , and I’m truly sorry it didn’t.
David Mamet’s Spartan seems to have found fertile ground for his traditional concern with male malaise amid the cosmic paranoia that now threatens to engulf us. Most of us were first struck by Mr. Mamet’s explosive male characters in the writer-director’s theatrical breakthrough, Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), a bristling saga set in the jungle of real-estate carnivores. At the time, one could discern the Mamet message-a sophisticated assault on the capitalist credo at the retail level-in the themes of Glengarry . But as Mr. Mamet’s career has since evolved, both onstage and on-screen, his message has taken a turn toward examining (even specializing in) almost pathologically aggressive masculine characters, men who like to believe they are without illusions. This is the world that Mr. Mamet, and indeed all of us, have inherited; its evils are so entrenched that it is a waste of time to preach reform. Mr. Mamet’s heroes accept the moral and social environment as it is, and strive to survive within it.
With Spartan , Mr. Mamet has upped the ante to cover our current national-security concerns in the midst of a bitterly fought Presidential election. Spartan is Wag the Dog (1997) taken to a more hysterical, melodramatic level, and most of my critical colleagues have refused to buy all of the plot twists. In any other period in our history, I would tend to agree, but in these stomach-churning times, I find it hard to imagine any plot device that is entirely implausible. In Spartan , the problem that Mr. Mamet confronts is not terrorism itself, but rather the conspiratorial bravado and secrecy invoked by our government to fight it.
The title refers to the custom of Sparta, the ancient Greek city-state, to send a single soldier when a neighboring ally requests military aid. But neither Plutarch not Thucydides could envisage the anarchic Special Forces agent Robert Scott (Val Kilmer), who turns against his colleagues in the Secret Service to thwart a cold-blooded clandestine operation-a plot to sacrifice the life of the President’s loose-cannon daughter in order to save the President himself from a scandal that spells electoral disaster. Even a yellow-dog Democrat like myself finds this plot excessively improbable-but, curiously, it doesn’t vitiate the suspense.
Mr. Mamet has already alerted us to one of the constants in his sinister world: William H. Macy, who, as the stoically silent Secret Service agent Stoddard, has “final-act villain” stamped on his every eloquent glare. For his part, Mr. Kilmer’s Scott starts out as a laconic, disciplined officer with two young protégés, Curtis (Derek Luke) and Jackie (Tia Texada), who are both caught up in the government treachery that threatens to destroy Scott himself.
What gives the film its bite is the extreme, eye-gouging amorality with which its characters deal with their enemies-foreign or domestic. Scott knows better than anyone that there are no rigid rules, just a maze of improvisations, and in the end he remains one step ahead of his most implacable foes. Mr. Kilmer’s Scott is one of the more sympathetic action heroes I’ve seen for some time, in that he’s capable of deviating from his devotion to duty in order to prevent evil from harming the innocent. Bringing international white slavery into the terrorist equation is a big stretch, but the President’s self-hating daughter, Laura Newton (Kristen Bell), provides an interesting challenge to Scott’s capacity to inspire trust in a member of a younger, largely alienated generation. The rest is a kinetic triumph for cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchía as the action stays excitingly and convincingly on the move, from Harvard to Dubai. Ultimately, Spartan is both technically accomplished and moderately entertaining.
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