Don't expect anything standard-issue from this uniquely funny, unpredictably tender and unapologetically twisted romance. Jim Carrey, dropping the goofy faces, has never done anything this deeply felt. The brilliant screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), often accused of an excess of cleverness, plumbs new emotional depths. And visionary director Michel Gondry, whose music-video flash for the likes of Bjork, Radiohead and the White Stripes kept his 2001 collaboration with Kaufman in Human Nature on a showoff level, reveals a bracing maturity in his commitment to character. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind chases so many ideas that it threatens to spin out of control. But with our multiplexes stuffed with toxic Hollywood formula, it's a gift to find a ballsy movie that thinks it can do anything, and damn near does.
Carrey stars as Joel Barish, a weary Manhattan wage slave who wakes up one winter morning, calls in sick and takes a train out to a beach in Montauk, on Long Island. Something draws him there; maybe the same thing that draws him to Clementine Kruczynski (a never-better Kate Winslet), a free spirit with dyed blue hair — she calls it "Blue Ruin" — whom he meets on the train home. These polar opposites feel a connection they can't explain.
So Kaufman gradually fills us in. Without giving too much away, let's just say that Joel and Clementine have both had all memories of their two-year relationship erased. She had the process done first, having seen a TV ad for a company called Lacuna in which Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (the invaluable Tom Wilkinson) asks, "Why remember a destructive love affair?" Joel, hurt by her actions, follows suit. In his apartment, on the night before the train trip, Dr. Mierzwiak's assistants Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Mary (Kirsten Dunst) attach the weird headgear and zap the recollections one by one, the most recent first. It's a botch job, mostly because Patrick splits to make a play for Clementine (he has stolen Joel's memories), and Stan and Mary strip down to get stoned and boogie.
No matter. The core of the movie is what's going on in Joel's head. And it's here that the filmmakers lavish their most creative and insightful notions. As Joel struggles to hold on to the memories of the woman he truly loves, Kaufman and Gondry grapple with the concept of memory itself and how it defines our lives. This is heady stuff — gorgeously shot by Ellen Kuras — that might fly off the handle into meta-hot air were it not for the grounded and groundbreaking performances of Carrey and Winslet. Never once do we doubt the bond that holds these embattled lovers despite their crippling flaws. He's recessive to the point of inertia. She's impulsive, with moods that change as frequently as the color of her hair — the dyes range from blue to green to red mist. They're always hitting a wall. "Just because you talk constantly doesn't mean you're communicating," says Joel.
Carrey burrows far inside the emotionally withdrawn Joel until we see the soul worth saving. And Winslet, one of the best actresses anywhere, is electrifying and bruisingly vulnerable. All the actors have shining moments. Wood, eons away from Frodo, gets creepy laughs but also measures the loss of leading a stolen life. Dunst brings a wounded dignity to Mary's betrayed trust in Mierzwiak, enhanced by the dark melancholy Wilkinson invests in the role. And Ruffalo proves again that he can find dramatic nuance in the corners of comedy. When Mary asks Stan how she looked with Mierzwiak when she first developed a crush on the doc, he takes a beat. "You looked happy," he says, "with a secret."
Unlocking secrets is part of the richness of a fantasy film that grows increasingly real. Even the lyrics of the silly song that bears Clementine's name — "lost and gone forever" — take on a poignant resonance as Joel fights to keep Clementine in his head, forcing memories of her into his childhood, where she never played a part. Kaufman, Gondry and the pitch-perfect actors have crafted a remarkable film that can coax a smile about making the same mistakes in love and then sneak up and quietly break your heart.