That's the question, the double theory, posed in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the latest and loveliest alternative universe created by Charlie Kaufman, America's most we should probably say only intellectually provocative screenwriter. In Being John Malkovich, Kaufman transposed Lewis Carroll's rabbit hole into a chute that ends in the mind of a movie star. Human Nature had him musing on the internal battle of animal and civilized instincts. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, he spun trash-game-show king Chuck Barris' tales of CIA sleuthing and assassination into a deconstruction of the spy-movie and biopic genres. He threw himself (and a fake twin brother) into Adaptation, a film about, among other things, the impossibility of one medium's being true to another.
Here, working with Human Nature director Michel Gondry, Kaufman wonders whether one person can be true to another, whatever obstacles pile up. On Valentine's Day 2004, Joel Barish (a wonderfully forlorn Jim Carrey) decides to skip work and who knows why take a train to Montauk on the frosty tip of Long Island. There he is accosted by free-spirited Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet, ornery and seductive). She lures mopey Joel into an affair, which proves to have as many abrasive spots as soft ones. Truth to tell, they're a wildly ill-suited pair. But, hey, bitter with the sweet, eh?
Not in this science-fiction comedy-drama, in which love means never having to remember you were sorry. When Joel learns Clem has had her memory of their affair removed by a Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), he resolves to do the same; why should he suffer remorse when Clem's slate is clean? So he sticks his head in Dr. M.'s apparatus an Ed Wood style space helmet mixed with a hair dryer but, as his mind swims through the memory-erasure process, he decides that even the rotten memories of Clem are worth treasuring. How to stop all this, escape from Camp Brainwash, especially when the doc's klutzy technicians (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst) are more attentive to their own weird erotic vectors than to the fellow whose love affair they are extracting?
For all the twists from memory to fantasy to "reality" (whatever that is in a Charlie Kaufman film) and for all the nods to the memory games played out in the brilliant stories of Philip K. Dick, Eternal Sunshine has a plot propulsion that's almost Spielbergian in its simplicity. A gentle creature gets lost and must fight to get back home home here being his mind and his girlfriend, or what's left of them. The Spielberg movie this one most resembles is Always, in which a dead man tries to reconnect with his surviving wife.
This is a lovesick horror movie, for Dr. M.'s procedure is not a cure but a disease: Alzheimer's, in which memories are erased in reverse order until only the earliest are retained. And yet as laid out with such elliptical care by Kaufman and Gondry and played by Carrey and Winslet with fiendish devotion to their wayward characters, it's a horror movie that dares to hope to hope even for the worst, since the thorniest love makes us feel most alive, even in our misery.
The film says love could be the emotional equivalent of muscle memory; it's buried so deep that even modern science, or science fiction, can't reach it. Love isn't what we remember; it's what we are. For all the memory Dr. M. extracts from Joel, the doctor neglects to remove his patient's heart, and that leads the poor sap right back to his unforgettable inamorata. If it's meant to happen, it will, over and over. You can't erase destiny.
That's just one view of an amnesiac romance so rich and demanding, it could mean anything. Kaufman may be counting on the audience's will, insistence and yearning to create a coherent love story from the shards and shrapnel he provides us. The movie warns, This will be a bumpy ride, steered by two people who can be hard to like, making detours into wormholes, in a plot that laps itself. Care to come along?
And like Joel, with love in his eyes and lust for a strange adventure, I say O.K.