Tony Campolo once said that parents' greatest desire is that their children be happy. Our culture is obsessed with wanting to be happy, and much of our unhappiness could be attributed to our bad experiences in relationships. Those that end abruptly seem to multiply the pain.
Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." (Focus Features)
But what if we could erase from our minds all the memories of a sour relationship? What if bad memories no longer hindered happiness?
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" tells the story of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). They had a relationship that ended abruptly, and instead of picking up life's pieces and moving on, they go to Dr. Howard Mierzwiak's Lacuna center. Dr. Mierzwiak has developed a method of removing all traces of a bad relationship. When asked about the risks of this procedure, Dr. Mierzwiak states that it is a form of brain damage, but it is no worse than a night of heavy drinking.
But what is the risk to the person who realizes he doesn't want to lose the memory of another after the process starts? What do you do when you regret the decision to end something?
"Sunshine" is the invention of screenwriter Charles Kaufman, who has written two outstanding movies that use the idea of meta-storytelling. Meta-storytelling puts layer upon layer as a method of moving the story forward. In both "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," Kaufman used a neo-realism to tell us his story. Different characters in concurrent stories were brought together in the end.
"Sunshine" moves to the world within, into the mind of Joel, who is having Clementine erased from his mind. There are no real concurrent stories that must be brought into the larger story. It is about what takes place when you realize the person you love is right before you, but is going to slip away forever.
Joel realizes he doesn't want to forget Clementine, so he must develop a defense in order to keep her from being taken from his mind. We see Joel calling forth memories from early childhood to his times with Clementine. He believes if he does this, he can hide the memory of Clementine in the recesses of his other memories that are to remain.
We witness the double-edged power of memory, which stores both the good and bad. There are those things you want to hold on to and those things you wish were wiped away. Joel desperately wants to hold on to the fading memory of Clementine, but the process works, and his memory fades.
"Sunshine" is a movie with big ideas, but told in the small world of two people who have fallen out of love. We witness the truth that when relationships are in trouble, the two parties will unsheathe every bad experience and use it as a weapon, destroying trust.
The movie's postmodern, nonlinear telling will distract and confuse some audiences, but if you can find a means of embracing the story, you will experience some of the magic that takes place when people learn to relate to each other.
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is a diamond in the rough. Its truth must be mined.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for R for language, some drug and sexual content. Reviewer's Note: Contains scenes of sexual activity without nudity.
Director: Michel Gondry
Writer: Charles Kaufman
Cast: Joel Barish: Jim Carrey; Clementine Kruczynski: Kate Winslet; Dr. Howard Mierzwiak: Tom Wilkinson; Stan: Mark Ruffalo; Patrick: Elijah Wood; Mary: Kirsten Dunst.
The movie's Web site is here (and here, for those who enjoy "theme" sites).