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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

With cinema, true joy comes from discovering the unexpected, finding oneself immersed in a thoughtful, unpredictable story that defies genre-labels while offering characters and scenarios that seem palpably real. And in this regard, Charlie Kaufman is without peer. That rarest of species — the celebrity screenwriter — Kaufman burst on to the scene in 1999 with the surprise hit Being John Malkovich and followed up in short order with Human Nature, Adaptation, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, displaying a prodigious gift for conceptual wit in a very short space of time. The fact that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) ranks among these — and perhaps surpasses them — can only make one wonder what he'll think of next. Jim Carrey stars in Eternal Sunshine as Joel Barish, a meek New Yorker who finds himself withdrawn to the point of depression, wishing that he could meet a woman who would obliterate his constant loneliness, but also aware that his own distrust of relationships is what makes him so painfully shy in the first place. But after meeting extroverted bookstore clerk Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), a relationship indeed blossoms, thanks to Clementine's ceaseless prodding of Joel, which he finds irresistible. But of course, inevitably there are problems, and one day Joel drops by the bookstore hoping to make amends with a gift — only to discover that Clementine seems to have no idea who he is, and that she's dating another man. Crushed and despondent, Joel is at loose ends until his friend Rob (David Cross) points out that he recently received a letter from a company called Lacuna regarding Clementine. Following up, Joel learns that Lacuna erased Clementine's memory of her relationship with him so that she could move on without the pain of letting go. Joel immediately requests the same procedure, which Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) agrees to do. But while undergoing the process, Joel realizes how much he loved Clementine — and the lovers wind up fleeing into the deepest recesses of his subconscious memories, hoping to avoid permanent deletion.

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The fact that Charlie Kaufman's scripts inevitably reside in a hazy area between fantasy and reality — or sanity and madness — potentially would make them, on the surface, easy to dismiss. One only has to hear the matchbook-cover premise for Being John Malkovich (puppeteer finds entrance to famous actor's head) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (man undergoing memory-wipe hides within a warped version of his personal history) to file the whole thing under "wacky," "high-concept," or worst of all, "post-modern irony." But what makes Kaufman such an unusual writer is that his surreal concepts are always brimming with humanity. No matter how outlandish the synopsis may read, there is an authenticity to each experience that's just as unusual in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking — there may not be a Lacuna company that performs memory-wipes, but there's barely a soul on earth who hasn't wished at one time or another to be freed from the curse of ego-shattering events. At its heart, Eternal Sunshine is a simple love story, and Kaufman's sweet script is brought to life by director Michel Gondry. Kaufman has had marvelous success with directors to date, with Spike Jonze handling Malkovich and Adaptation, while rookie George Clooney helmed Confessions with remarkable skill. But Gondry (who also directed Human Nature) seems to be Kaufman's ideal other half, making up a team that potentially could rival Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes or Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. Gondry's inventive visual wit is best seen on the compilation DVD The Work of Michel Gondry, where his short subjects offer a delightful series of repetitions and doppelgängers — he's a director who actually can make a Kylie Minogue video fascinating. But on this project, his tricks remain primarily in-camera, opting for old-school practical techniques to create illusions ranging from disappearing (and re-appearing) people to a wonderfully witty forced-perspective re-creation of the kitchen in Joel's childhood home. As Joel, Jim Carrey reveals that he's perfectly suited to handle serio-comic material, and while one doesn't wish that he would abandon such comic sprees as Bruce Almighty, it's also easy to wish he would expand his repertoire with low-key roles as well. Kate Winslet is both eccentric and adorable as Clementine, so flawless with her American accent that it's easy to forget she's actually English, while displaying the sort of wit and energy that makes it easy to understand why a guy like Joel would fall in love with her. And the small, first-rate supporting cast is rounded out by Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood. If it's not a tearjerker, then it's the closest Charlie Kaufman has come to sheer romance, telling a story that echoes his most prominent themes in Adaptation by reminding us that human relationships may be unpleasant at times, but they also are necessary — and people will go to unimaginable lengths before they will let them go. Universal and Focus Features' DVD release of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include a commentary track with Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman, a standard "making-of" featurette (11 min.), an interview segment with Gondry and Carrey, which includes behind-the-scenes materials (14 min.), six deleted scenes, and a music video. Keep-case.

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