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Carrey proves adept at playing mind games

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The title of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's new movie, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," comes from a work by Alexander Pope, the 18th-century poet. It's amusingly recited by a character who hopes this "famous quote" from "Pope Alexander" will impress the intellectual guy she's got her eye on.

Because commercial films don't refer to Alexander Pope every day - or Pope Alexander, for that matter - you can tell from the get-go that "Eternal Sunshine" is an unusual sort of picture. More precisely, it's a Charlie Kaufman sort of picture, full of storytelling strategies that bend Hollywood formulas into celluloid pretzels.

As he showed in movies such as "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," which both earned him Oscar nominations, Mr. Kaufman sees the human mind - and its often preposterous thought processes - as fiction's last great frontier to explore. Expertly directed by Michel Gondry, "Eternal Sunshine" proves Kaufman hasn't run out of trails to blaze in this territory.

Jim Carrey plays Joel Barish, a nebbishy suburbanite who skips a day of work for an impulsive train trip and meets Clementine (Kate Winslet). She's as quirky as she is attractive, and he's not the most normal guy in town, and they fall in love.

Or do they? Something odd appears to be going on, reaching a crisis when Clementine starts reacting to Joel as if they'd never met. Eventually he discovers what's happened: Deciding to end their affair, she's gone through a bizarre brain procedure that's erased her memories of him. Irked, insulted, and miserable, Joel seeks out the mind-meddling psychiatrist and requests the same treatment.

Along the way he regrets his decision, realizing how good their relationship was for him. He persuades his mental Clementine to evade the memory-killing process, hiding in ever-deeper layers of his mind where the shrink's psychiatric software won't penetrate. This results in a cerebral cat-and-mouse game as Joel lies unconscious while geeky technicians (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood) and the distracted doctor (Tom Wilkinson) try to figure out why his brain waves are falling off the computer screen.

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