Monday, March 01, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #4

Why do I fall in love with every woman who shows me the least bit of attention?
- Joel Barish (Jim Carrey)

#4 - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Why I liked it

Man, how many reasons are you gonna need for this one? Let's get started:

It's actual science fiction.

We live in an age where 'sci-fi movie' immediately means 'CGI effects'. (See 'Avatar'.) And on one hand, this movie does have CGI effects. But it also has far more traditional effects, and the CGI effects don't overwhelm either the non-CGI effects or the movie itself.

But more to the point, the movie is science fiction because it follows the golden rule of science fiction: take a world very much like our own, ask the question "what if (this thing) were different in some way?", and figure out, as closely as possible, what happens because of that. In Eternal Sunshine's case, the question is, what if you could have your memory selectively erased?

Joel: Is there any risk of brain damage?
Dr. Mierzwiak: Well, technically speaking, the operation
is brain damage, but it's on par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you'll miss.

It's a very literary kind of science fiction storytelling, and one we seldom get in mainstream Hollywood films. That alone makes it interesting for starters.

It's got a blow-out cast

I'll admit, I'm very actor-centric when it comes to my movie likes and dislikes. If I like a performer, I'll often go see a movie I wouldn't otherwise consider, just for the chance to see that performer in action. Kate Winslet, for instance, is one of my favorite actresses, so much so that she nearly made 'The Holiday' and the first episode of 'Extras' watchable all by herself. (Sadly, she didn't, but the fact that I watched those at all is testament to how optimistic I am about any project she's involved in.)

But this film has many more outstanding performers:

  • Elijah Wood, in his first big-ticket movie since the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as a creepy stalker-type guy (aka: the anti-Frodo)
  • Mark Ruffalo, in a traditional Mark Ruffalo role
  • Tom Wilkinson, as the avuncular doctor in charge of the company that runs the procedure
  • Kirsten Dunst, in a vulnerable yet sexually-forward role that, if you didn't know she had also appeared that summer as Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man, would have started conversations in geek circles about how this Kirsten Dunst could probably do a good job playing Mary Jane Watson in that rumored Spider-Man flick coming out soon.

You'll notice that I didn't include co-star Jim Carrey on this list, but that's because there's a different point I want to make about him...

The movie actually gets good use out of Jim Carrey

I am not, generally speaking, a fan of Jim Carrey. In fact, Carrey is in the category of performers that has exactly the opposite effect on me as the category of performers that Winslet is in: knowing he's in a movie makes me significantly less likely to want to see a film.

Carrey is a 'bankable' star because people like to see his manic on-screen persona. I, frankly, tired of his manic on-screen persona during The Mask and, once I realized most Jim Carrey vehicles were, basically, The Mask without CGI, I didn't see much reason to watch him again.

With that said, the combination of director Michael Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is able to keep Carrey playing it straight, and an amazing discovery results: Carrey is actually a pretty darned good actor -- he doesn't need to be manic in order to perform well. (Though Carrey does get to be a bit manic, though not Mask-level manic, during the stretch of the film where he's racing through his own memories, trying frantically to hide the memory of his ex-girlfriend, which he's realized too late he wants to keep after all, from the people he's paid to erase those memories from his mind.)

Now with all that said, if the movie was just about the cast, it wouldn't necessarily have to be a good movie. (See Superman IV.)

It's a science fiction movie with big ideas, and not just about science

Joel: I can't see anything I don't like about you.
Clementine: But you will! But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I'll get bored with you and feel trapped because that's what happens with me.
Joel: Okay.

You might think of this as cheating, going back to the first reason I liked the film to close out my personal analysis, but doing this actually reinforces some of the major ideas from the film.

For instance, one of the main themes in the movie is that memory is sometimes the only thing that can stop us from acting on impulses that would be bad for us. There's an element of this in the Joel/Clementine relationship, but the real illustration of this point is a subplot where Mary (played by Dunst) has a powerful crush on Dr. Mierswiak, and Mierswiak (we learn from his soon-to-be-ex-wife) has been manipulating Mary into maintaining that feeling by convincing her to erase every bad memory associated with acting on that feeling. The revelation is actually far more chilling than Wood's character's admission that he steals panties from women he's attracted to while the 'team' is in their bedrooms erasing their memories of prior bad relationships.

In Joel and Clementine's case, though, the movie adds an additional wrinkle -- sometimes you have to be able to remember a bad memory in order to know how much of it to ignore. Because sometimes memory can also be an excuse that prevents us from acting in ways that would actually be beneficial.

These are big ideas, but they're not Asimov-level postulations on how society will change as a result of the science-fiction 'what if' premise explored in the story. They're explored within realistic-seeming relationships between unusual but still fairly realistic people. (For instance, I've known more than one woman who, while perhaps not quite as manic-depressive as Clementine, certainly play in the same ballpark.)

There's a reason Netflix lists the film under 'cerebral comedies', and if that genre isn't your style, then feel free to take a pass on this one. Otherwise, if your taste in movies seems at all like mine, why haven't you seen this one yet?

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