Script Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
by Michael Spadaro of Being Charlie Kaufman
Published: September 19, 2002
"How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot: Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each prayer accepted, and each wish resign'd." - Alexander Pope.
I spent last week standing guard by my letter box, waiting for the postman to show up with Charlie Kaufman's latest script, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." I stood there and waited while birds landed on me and stained my clothing in unspeakable ways. I was splashed with mud as cars drove by. Passers-by gave me strange looks. I had enough time to begin wondering if the script would actually be worth the wait. "Being John Malkovich," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "Adaptation" were great. Surely Charlie was due for something... not awful, but average, like "Human Nature." Alas, my fears were unfounded. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" will knock your socks off, drive you wild, and make you realise you're probably an untalented sack of potatoes.
The thing is, this is a hard script to summarise without giving away too many spoilers, and I really don't want to ruin the experience for you, should you plan on seeing the film or reading the script yourself. Besides which, the story overlaps and contorts itself in so many directions that I can't explain the plot in a linear fashion. But I'll try. Bear with.
I can start by giving away the same information Charlie himself has given away in recent interviews. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" tells the story of Joel Barish, a man who discovers that his girlfriend, Clementine, has undergone a kind of brain surgery to completely erase him from her memory. Distraught, Joel has the same procedure performed on himself, so that he can forget his darling Clementine ever existed (look, I couldn't resist - sue me).
The majority of the script's scenes take place inside Joel's head as the memories are erased. He literally relives, in reverse-order, all of his Clementine-related memories - from bad ending to better beginning. (The fact that he comes to realise this is all going on inside his head, makes for some truly bizarre but utterly brilliant dialogue - he repeats the words he spoke when these events occurred in reality, but he also goes off-course with dialogue that stems from his awareness that this is all essentially a dream.) But as Joel relives the better memories, he decides he's making a major mistake and tries to save Clementine by hiding her in memories she doesn't belong in - for instance, a memory of when he was two years old, taking a bath in the kitchen sink. I did mention this is a Charlie Kaufman script, right?
Meanwhile, the two guys and the receptionist who're performing this operation on Joel realise that something is going wrong. They each have their own personal histories that are revealed as the story rolls on.
There is a lot going on in this script, and it is all interwoven brilliantly. By this stage you might be thinking, "Of course you'd say it's brilliant: you're the webmaster of a Charlie Kaufman site and you haven't given him a dud review yet." I know what you mean. There's an online film reviewer who's friends with Quentin Tarantino, and for that reason I've always found it hard to swallow any of his Tarantino-related reviews with anything less than a spoonful of salt. But listen: 1. If I'd had the chance to review the "Human Nature" script I would have told everyone it was very weird but ultimately average, and 2. If the cover of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" said "Written by Adolf Hitler," I'd still give it a big thumbs up, because it's so damn good.
What's a little mind-blowing (so to speak) is the fact that the premise of this script probably isn't far from becoming a reality. Watch any documentary about advances in neurology or brain surgery and you'll see what I mean. Scary thought.
You probably haven't noticed it, but not once have I used the word "hilarious" or even "funny." There's a good reason for that: the script simply isn't funny. It's not meant to be, because - brace yourself - Charlie Kaufman hasn't written a comedy here. Okay, there're maybe one or two chuckles, but for the most part, the script is draped in sadness and melancholy. Not to the point where we say "Good God, enough with the downbeatness," mind you, because the characters are engaging and we want to know how things will turn out for them. All of Charlie's scripts - particularly "Being John Malkovich" and "Human Nature" - have been criticised here and there for being populated with fairly unpleasant characters. I don't think those critics will have such a problem with "Sunshine." We feel for Joel and Clementine. There's sadness and melancholy in all of Kaufman's other work, of course, but in those the downbeatness is somewhat disguised by humour. Not so here. The straight face approach serves to amplify the plight of the characters - and it works beautifully. Charlie has made the right choice in playing this one straight. I guess an incidental side-effect is that he now has an answer for those who ask, "Yeah, but can this guy write something serious?"
Another constant criticism of Kaufman's work concerns his endings. To me, the ending of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" felt rushed, and "Malkovich," "Human Nature" and "Adaptation" all go pretty loopy in the final act. Some folks like that, some folks don't. But it doesn't happen in "Sunshine." The ending here is completely consistent with everything that's gone before, without in any way being a let-down. In fact, the ending is wonderful.
I hate to gush, because as I said, it seems predictable that I'd have nothing but praise for his latest script. It's a little frustrating, because I really want you guys to believe me: this script kicks all kinds of butt.
I could go into the all of the wild story-telling techniques Charlie uses here - it doesn't stop with the reverse-order - but it would take forever and I'm wary of spoilers. Suffice it to say that you can't convincingly pull off a script like this unless you really know what you're doing.
One purely nitpicky fault with the script is the apparent lack of proof-reading here and there. In several places, dialogue has been attributed to characters who aren't even in the scene. You're probably thinking "No, you're just not getting one of Charlie's tricks," but I've re-read the scenes and I'm telling you, it's an editorial oversight.
I don't doubt that some will say Charlie is taking a leaf out of Christopher Nolan's book, with the reverse-order thing. I loved "Memento" to death. Read the script, thought it was awesome; saw the movie, was surprised and relieved to find it was equally awesome. It's only a matter of time before someone tries to do another "Memento," but "Sunshine" isn't that script. For one thing, Kaufman took three years to write this, and he started before "Memento" came out. ("Sunshine" was written specifically for Michel Gondry to direct - in fact, it was a friend of Gondry's who gave Kaufman the basic premise - and while Charlie was writing "Sunshine," Gondry directed "Human Nature.") For another thing, there's a lot more going on in this script than just a back-to-front plot. A lot. I'm not talking only about clever story-telling devices - there are plenty of those - but also the questions asked by the script. What would drive you to just erase all memory of a person or incident? What are the consequences? What if you decided you didn't want to lose those memories after all? What if you found out you'd been erased from someone else's mind? What if you found out that, somewhere back in time, you had a bunch of memories erased? Would you want them back, or are some memories better off buried (Joel and Clementine aren't the only ones whose memories have been tampered with)? Similarly, are some truly awful memories actually nothing more than typical bumps in the road that everyone experiences? Is the old adage true - forget history and you're condemned to repeeat it? On and on and on.
It's the kind of script that needs a second and third reading - not because it's hard to follow, but because once you know the full story, when you go through it again you'll notice all kinds of little things that make you say "A-ha." (Much like "Memento," I guess.)
Michel Gondry didn't make a big impression with his first feature film. For the most part, reviewers felt he took the odd, cartoonish nature of "Human Nature" and turned it up way too much. I don't think this will be a problem with "Sunshine." (…he said cautiously.) Like I said, this ain't a comedy. I believe the script plays to Gondry's strengths - visually, it has the potential to look awesome. Every time one of Joel's memories draws to a close, the scenery around him begins to dry out and fade, and the characters start talking robotically as he gradually forgets one more incident. In other scenes we see Joel and Clementine actually running past a series of Joel's memories. Very cool stuff, let me tell you. God, I hope nobody messes this up.
I have no idea what draft of the script I read - the date is nowhere on it - but I'm assuming it's a first or second draft, since nobody else has reviewed a copy yet. Whatever draft it is, I hope it doesn't get re-worked as much as "Malkovich" did. When Gondry helmed "Human Nature," the finished product wasn't too different to the first draft of that script. In that instance, it was probably a bad move, but for the sake of "Eternal Sunshine," I hope Gondry stays true to form. Of course, if Charlie ends up improving on what I read, I'll be nothing but pleased.
As far as I know, the only other name attached to the film is Jim Carrey. Great casting decision. I guess the closest thing Carrey has come to Joel was playing Truman Burbank. Joel is more serious and has more depth, but the plot of "Sunshine" is wilder than "The Truman Show," so it balances out. Jim Carrey in serious mode hasn't really set the world on fire since "Truman," but don't let that put you off.
I've been trying to think of who I'd cast as Clementine and I'm drawing a blank. We need someone who can be all-around cool, who can make a guy fall in love with her after ten minutes of chatter, but who isn't without her faults. Whoever gets the role, she's going to be one happy camper. I'm not surprised there's apparently "a slew of A-list actresses" interested in the part. I just wish I knew who they were.
All right folks, my time is almost up. I really don't want to turn The Trades into the web's second Charlie Kaufman site - he's popped up here three times now, thanks to yours truly. But "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is so gobsmackingly good that I just had to tell you about it. Please, please believe me when I say I'm not pumping up this script just because it's Charlie. I repeat: even if Hitler had written it, I'd be raving about it. Of the numerous upcoming Kaufman projects, this is the one I'm anticipating most, and given the length of time it usually takes for a Kaufman project to see the light of day, it's gonna be a long wait. He has never tried to please anyone but himself, and he can't be accused of going commercial with this script, but I believe this project has the potential to reach more filmgoers than "Being John Malkovich" or any of his other upcoming films.
Interesting side-note to close on: Julie Ng from Morgan and Wong Online report that Glen Morgan and James Wong - a screenwriting duo with a long and illustrious TV career behind them - are planning to make a film out of John Kessel's short story "Hearts Do Not In Eyes Shine." The plot? "'Hearts' tells the humanistic sci-fi story of a couple on the straits who decide to take advantage of a technology that will block out unpleasant memories in order to save their marriage. Unfortunately, trouble starts again when the wife starts getting paranoid about if the unpleasant memories she lost were the same as her husband's." Things that make you go hmmm. Morgan and Wong are great writers, no doubt about it, but despite the hmmm-inducing similarities between that project and Charlie's, I don't think they have the talent, or the Hollywood clout to get the right folks on board, to top what's been done with "Eternal Sunshine."
It will come as no great shock that I give this script an almighty A+. Find a copy, read it, then read it again.
Michael Spadaro is the publisher of the website "Being Charlie Kaufman." He can be reached at email@example.com.