“Random thoughts for Valentine’s Day 2004. Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.”

Those are the first spoken lines in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Jim Carrey’s voice is laced with melancholy and wry humor as he lets us in on the internal monologue of his character, Joel Barish. It’s a far cry from the sassy voice that launched him to movie stardom ten years earlier in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Yet there’s a whole contingent of moviegoers who, prior to this film and a couple of comparable screen gems in the early 2000s, might have felt it was an awkward question if you asked them, “What’s your favorite romantic comedy?”

Joel’s voice speaks for those people. Like Punch-Drunk Love in 2002 (also soundtracked by Jon Brion) and Lost in Translation in 2003, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a movie that wrangled career-best work out of a comedic actor, simply by injecting pathos into him via a strong script with an auteurist director behind the camera. Instead of a straight-up comedy, we see Carrey dialing down his usual antics and appearing in a romantic dramedy, one that in this case happens to be blended with quirky sci-fi, too.

It helps that he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast. Joel may be the protagonist, but the two most interesting characters in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are actually women. The movie uses the deletion of memories as a plot device, and viewers who fell in love with it in the theater back in March 2004 now have a decade and half of other life experiences vying for recollection space in their heads. As it celebrates its 15th anniversary this week, let’s reclaim the memory (with spoilers) of one of the quintessential films of the 2000s.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind hit theaters the same day as Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead back in 2004. Like Snyder, director Michel Gondry had a background in music videos. Among many other credits to his name is the innovative Lego-animation video for The White Stripes’ breakthrough hit, “Fell in Love with a Girl.” In a 2002 video for a song from the same album, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” the director also depicted a man walking through his own memories, as singer Jack White saw visions of his past life projected onto the walls of a dilapidated house.

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry employs numerous practical effects to build a convincing landscape of the mind. Whether it be a forced-perspective kitchen where Joel inhabits the body of a baby-sized version of himself, or a spotlight that illuminates him as he seeks to escape the dark void of vanishing memories, the mental topography here is appropriately surreal. Joel wants to forget his ex-girlfriend, Clementine, because she’s already had him wiped from her brain, courtesy of a firm named Lacuna, Inc., which specializes in the dubious service of memory erasure.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the culmination of a five-year screenwriting hot streak for Charlie Kaufman, who would cross over into directing with his next project, Synecdoche, New York. Kaufman’s scripts for Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002) had both received Oscar nominations; his whip-smart script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the one that would finally win him the award.

Rewatching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2019, I was struck by the similarities between it and another Carrey film, The Truman Show, which I revisited for /Film last year. Here again, there are larger unseen forces working against Carrey’s character. While he’s unconscious — reliving his memories at the same time Lacuna technicians are deleting them — Joel can overhear voices from the outside world. He looks up to the sky at the voices, just like Truman does. At one point, we even see his contented, sleeping face lying on a pillow in an image that recalls the poster for The Truman Show.

This time, however, a woman’s head comes sliding into the frame with him.

Manic Pixie Dream Destroyers

As Clementine, Kate Winslet is a force of nature. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind emancipated Winslet from the period costumes that marked much of her early career. With her outgoing, mercurial nature and her dyed hair (the first of several colors we see is “Blue Ruin,” she informs), there’s an irrepressible quality to Clementine that feels like a credible reciprocal to the subdued, hipsterish quality of Joel—he of the five o’clock shadow and collared shirt and sweater combo. You really believe that Joel and Clementine are two people who might meet (or reunite with no memory of each other) on the train in New York.

With so much of the Clementine we see existing in Joel’s consciousness and coming to his aid in his escapade there, the character does skate the edge of what film critic Nathan Rubin famously called the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” As Alison Herman noted for Flavorwire on the film’s 10th anniversary, however, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a movie that destroyed that stereotype before it even existed.

She’s not a dead girlfriend like in other movies, but yes, there is the obligatory flashback of Clementine under the bedcovers with light filtering through them. Yet scenes like this are offset by other moments outside Joel’s mind where we can perceive that Clementine does have an inner life of her own.

When a creepazoid Lacuna technician, played to perfection by Elijah Wood, inveigles his way into a relationship with her using knowledge stolen from Joel’s memories, she can sense that something is wrong. We see that she has all this bottled-up emotion that exists apart from Joel, and it makes her feel like more of a real autonomous being. If anything, her character seems like a knowing rebellion against the idea of a stock female character who lives solely to assist the male hero in his quest for self-discovery. This is evident in the line:

“Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”

Winslet is an eight-time Academy Award nominee, but this might actually be her best performance. The other MVP of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is Kirsten Dunst. Ironically, it was Dunst’s character in the 2005 Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown that led to the coinage of that term, Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dunst plays Mary, a receptionist for Lacuna, Inc. Unbeknownst to Mary, she’s had her own memories of an affair with her older boss, Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), erased. Yet she continues to work right alongside him, all the while harboring an unexplainable fixation on him … even as she and another Lacuna staffer, Stan (Mark Ruffalo) bounce around in their underwear, waxing philosophical about The Clash and passing lit doobies back and forth.

Early on in the film, Dr. Mierzwiak downplays the dangers of the memory erasure procedure with a line of crackerjack dialogue:

“Technically speaking, the procedure itself is brain damage, but it’s on par with a night of heavy drinking.”

Mary has essentially blacked out her whole affair with him. She doesn’t realize what she did, or what he did to her, and she doesn’t understand it when she feels compelled to throw herself at him again. Unfortunately, Dr. Mierzwiak’s wife shows up outside the window right as Mary leans and impulsively kisses him.

At that point, the lie of the spotless mind becomes untenable. When the truth of her situation finally comes out — “We have a history,” Dr. Mierzwiak admits to her — it lands hard, giving Mary one of the most poignant arcs in the film.

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