Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Directed by Michel Gondry. Starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, and Mark Ruffalo. Rating unvailable.

Ever wondered why your last (insert number here) relationships went wrong? Freudian theory, which still dominates, regardless of reactions and revision, has it that we're all enslaved by childhood experiences--especially the traumatic ruptures among them.

The premise of this latest, and best, effort from Charlie Kaufman--the cerebellum-obsessed writer of Adaptation. and Being John Malkovich--is precisely the opposite. It posits a world, very close to our own, in which the sufferer can hire a specialist to wipe out the most troubling memories instead of confronting and mastering them.

Certainly, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey, in his most restrained performance yet) is an excellent candidate for this kind of anti-therapy. When we first meet the nebbishy office worker, in a remarkably loose-limbed precredit sequence that lasts almost 20 minutes (the movie was shot in a deceptively raw-looking style by Swoon's Ellen Kuras), he meets a fizzy, free-spirited woman called Clementine (Kate Winslet, also hitting a career high).

Clementine's the sort who changes her hair colour every few weeks--Code Red and Blue Ruin are just two of her faves--in a restless frenzy that would drive most men off the beach at Montauk, where the two bump into each other, and straight into Long Island Sound. But something about her clicks with the recessive Joel. And she's maybe ready to try nice for a change.

After the opening credits, though, our perpetually stubbled hero is in tears; after they've lived together for an unknown amount of time, Clementine suddenly doesn't even know him when he goes to visit her at her bookstore job. Through mutual friends--a couple played with insouciant hostility by David Cross and Jane Adams--he finally learns that she has had him utterly erased.

To retaliate, he decides to do the same, and seeks out the offices of the Lacuna Institute. (Lacuna, which comes from the same Latin root as lagoon, means a cavity or empty space waiting to filled.) There, the easygoing Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) promises a painless procedure, but one that does have consequences. "It is a kind of brain damage," he explains. "But no more so than a night of heavy drinking."

The good doctor doesn't know that just such a boozefest will be had by his chief technicians (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood, both in change-of-pace roles) and a secretary played by Kirsten Dunst, whose part seems minimal at first but pays off as things develop. The Lacunites don't exactly treat the procedure as sacrosanct, and most of the movie intercuts their self-absorbed debauchery with the tribulations of the prone protagonist. In mid-operation, while vaguely wondering why strangers seem to be bouncing on his bed, Joel decides that there are a few things about Clementine he's not ready to forget.

In a long, climactic sequence handled with perfectly controlled mania by director Michel Gondry--who was not such a good fit with Kaufman in the flat Human Nature--Joel tries, with increasing frustration, to find crevasses of memory in which to hide his knowledge of his merciless mate. At its best the film, which takes its title from a poem by Alexander Pope and some tonal qualities from Ursula K. Le Guin, makes you laugh out loud while pondering the nature of memory itself. And, without putting a pretty bow on modern relationships, it makes you think that the people in our lives, past and present, can be even more valuable than we realize.