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Cash and Carrey: Jim Carrey pays to have his memory wiped in 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.'

Memory Dump

A heartbroken Jim Carrey can't seem to let go of Kate Winslet in 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'

By Richard von Busack

THE LAST TIME a girl gave me a playful thwack on the shoulder--I mean, one that was meant to hurt--I was in my 20s. Older people learn that bar fighter's motto: You only have two hands, so look for something else with which to punish your opponent. Like your sharp tongue, for instance.

Seeing Kate Winslet punch Jim Carrey in the arm in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sums up the main problem with this new film co-written by Charlie Kaufman, the artist Pierre Bismuth and director Michel Gondry, late of the odd but oddly promising Human Nature.

Carrey, wearing a watch cap and gazing at his shoes, plays Joel, a 40-year-old who acts like a 20-year-old. His prickly, unpredictable girlfriend, Clementine (Winslet), is still in the stage where she dyes her hair radioactive colors. One loves any actress who isn't a starveling, and in one charming instant Carrey gets a double handful of Winslet's child-bearing hips and gives them a little shake. Yet Winslet is somewhat too mature and solid to carry on like an angry waif.

By the standards of romantic comedy, Eternal Sunshine is as strange as strange can be. It uses a science-fiction premise like that of the recent movie Paycheck, based on a Philip K. Dick story: amnesia machines are used, in this case, for leisure activities instead of corporate evil.

Joel is a cartoonist who lives deep in the New York suburbs. He fell for the mercurial Clementine at a party, and they became lovers, though he was a hermit, and she was an outgoing hard drinker. But one day, she brushed him off. Later, he received a card from the Lacuna company advising him that she had him erased from her memory.

Lacuna disremembers it for you wholesale. (Lacuna means the missing part of a manuscript.) The heartbroken Joel buys himself a session of the treatment, which is done at home while the patient sleeps under a metal helmet. Unfortunately, human error contaminates the procedure.

Stan (Mark Ruffalo), the supervisor, is distracted by the depressed antics of his co-worker (Elijah Wood), who invites over his girlfriend, Mary (Kirsten Dunst). As the three drink beer and squabble, Joel chases the last of Clementine through his subconscious, hiding her, as it were, in old memories where the technicians won't look.

In these sequences, Gondry brings an innovative, fantastic gleam to the fatefulness of a romantic comedy. Joel tries to keep his memory of arriving at Grand Central Station with Clementine, but all the figures glimpsed by the lovers are rubbed out one by one. A house on Montauk Point vanishes piece by piece as Lacuna's electronic erasers dissolve it. Gondry and Kaufman's idea is that some trace of attraction would survive everything else we forget about a lost lover.

Carrey is most like the Carrey his fans love when he plays himself as a child. Joel associates Clementine with his first crush on a neighbor lady, and Winslet looks a treat in the early-'70s cocktail outfit. It's a topic for discussion: There must be thousands of men who fall for women who look like their first baby sitter.

Around the bed of the sleeping Joel, the three technicians, joined by the exasperated creator of the technique, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), work to retrieve and delete Clementine. This is when Mary, apropos of nothing, explains the film's title. It's a quote of Alexander Pope's 1717 poem "Elöisa to Abelard"--coincidentally, a poem about a lovelorn nun complaining "of all affliction taught a lover yet / 'Tis sure the hardest science to forget!" Mary recites a quatrain she says she read in Bartlett's: "How happy is the blameless vestal's [nun's] lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot. / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each prayer accepted, and each wish resigned."

But even as Joel heads for this "spotlessness," the movie is clearly about a man's fantasies of a woman. Chasing her around through his mind, he remembers the impulsive things they used to do, lying on the ice of a frozen river or eating Chinese food. Because we see Clementine mostly through the filter of Joel's memories and fantasies, the movie takes place primarily inside Joel's head, just as Being John Malkovich was in that actor's head.

Thus Clementine seems more like a type than an actual woman. Winslet warms up the role, bringing appeal to this hard-to-love girl. What's missing in her Clementine isn't the anger of youth but some of its vulnerability, which is why Dunst's Mary, with her impulsive brashness and sadness at this all-night brainwashing party, steals the show.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (R; 108 min.), directed by Michel Gondry, written by Charlie Kaufman, Pierre Bismuth and Gondry, photographed by Ellen Kuras and starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, opens Friday.

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From the March 17-24, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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