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.
"Eternal Sunshine" is a complicated story that demands your full attention; Mr. Gondry unfolds it at a mind-bending pace. This alone makes it a hugely refreshing respite from ordinary multiplex fare.
The film's artistry cements Kaufman's status as a world-class screenwriter once and for all, erasing - or at least mitigating - memories of earlier scripts that didn't play out quite so well. The ingenuity of "Adaptation" diminished when it morphed into the kind of claptrap it was supposed to be satirizing, and "Human Nature" didn't jell under director Gondry's uneven guidance. Gondry has grown enormously as an artist, though, and "Eternal Sunshine" is an incontestable breakthrough for the international auteur.
It's also a milestone for Carrey, who finally succeeds at the career-broadening inwardness he reached only intermittently in "The Truman Show" and "Man on the Moon," two of his more ambitious undertakings. Here, he's antic when he needs to be and sensitive and touching when the story calls for it.
In a recent discussion at Columbia University, director Gondry said he was less worried that Carrey might be too broadly comic than that he'd try too hard to appear forlorn and wan. Gondry asked him to retain his habitual manic energy but turn it inward, making it work on psychological as well as physical levels.
The experiment works beautifully - and almost all the acting in "Eternal Sunshine" is remarkably strong, from Winslet's mercurial Clementine and Wilkinson's jumbled psychiatrist to Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst as psychiatric assistants whose minds are on each other, not their work.
Bravo to all. "Eternal Sunshine" spreads the brightest cinematic sunbeams of the season.
• Rated R; contains sexuality, vulgarity, and drugs.