This fabulously imaginative and deliciously loopy romance is the sweetest movie yet from the magnificently twisty mind behind Adaptation, Human Nature, and Being John Malkovich.
Once again Charlie Kaufman plays with the themes of identity, time, memory, and attraction in a slightly off-kilter world that seems oddly homelike and familiar. The movie is tougher, truer, more heart-breaking and then more heart-healing than a video store shelf of Julias, Megs, Reeses, and Sandras.
Joel (Jim Carrey) is a shy man whose heart is broken when impulsive and free-spirited Clementine (Kate Winslet) leaves him. When he finds out that she has arranged to have all of her memories of him erased, he decides to do the same.
It all seems so simple. Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkenson) of the Lacuna corporation is smoothly assuring. When Joel asks if the procedure could cause brain damage, Dr. Mierzwiak cheerily assures him that “Technically, it is brain damage, about on a par with a night of heavy drinking.” All Joel has to do is bring everything from his apartment that reminds him of Clementine and dictate all of his memories of her into a tape recorder. Then Stan (Mark Ruffalo), the Lacuna technician, maps every part of the brain containing a memory of the formerly loved one. That night, while Joel is asleep, Stan will come in and, using the map, erase every memory of Clementine in Joel’s brain. Then Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Lacuna’s receptionist, mails out postcards to all of Joel’s friends asking them never to mention Clementine again, and it’s as though he never met her.
But erasing someone from the mind the mind is one thing; erasing someone from the heart is another. As Pascal told us, “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.” Stan zaps the memories from Joel’s brain, while Joel, sound asleep under a helmet that looks like a stainless steel colander, realizes that he does not want to let Clementine go after all. There are memories he wants to keep. And then we are inside Joel’s brain (or were we there all along?), as he and Clementine race to find a place to hide, where the memories will be kept safe. Or are those new memories? And is that Clementine who is advising him on how to hold on to her or is it his memory of her?
Shot in a style that is both gritty and dreamy, the movie’s insinuatingly casual tone gently nudges the concepts along so that it almost begins to make more sense than real life. Of course Valentine’s Day would be Lacuna’s busiest time of year. And of course the technicians would be bored by erasing the memories that tear us apart, and so would spend their time getting high and looking through our stuff. And of course the best place to hide a memory you don’t want erased is….no, I’ll have to let you enjoy finding that one out for yourselves.
Carrey and Winslet risk making their characters as maddening to us as they are to each other and are ultimately as irresistable, too. Ruffalo, Wilkenson, and Dunst are impeccable, providing a bittersweet counterpoint of imperfection and longing. Director Michel Gondry matches Kaufman’s script with understated but brilliantly original images of memory and forgetting. As Joel and Clementine speak in front of bookshelves, the books become paler and paler, the titles and authors disappearing. Walls crumble and fall away. In his memory, Joel is first his adult, then his child self, then both. Time and space between locations flicker, overlap, disappear. Clementine’s ever-changing hair color becomes not just a symbol of her impulsivity and inconsistency but just another detail that slips out of reach as we try to remember who it is we care about.
Parents should know that the movie has extremely strong language and very explicit sexual references and situations. Characters drink and smoke cigarettes and marijuana.
Families who see this movie should talk about which memories they might think about erasing and which ones they will always make sure to keep. They might also like to look up the meaning of the word “Lacuna,” talk about some of their favorite quotations and read some of the brilliant poetry of Alexander Pope. The poem that gives this movie its title is about one of the most famous tragic love affairs in literature, Abelard and Eloisa (also called Heloise). Fans of Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich will remember that it features a puppet show based on their story.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Kaufman’s other films and some other stories about repressed men who become involved with free spirits, including Cabaret, Bringing Up Baby, and The Sterile Cuckoo. Another great romance about memory loss is Random Harvest.
Non baby-boomers who don’t recognize the reference to Huckleberry Hound can visit this website to learn something about the cartoon character. A nice counterpoint to the theme of the movie, Huckleberry Hound joined the French foreign legion to forget his girlfriend Clementine, but was reminded of her when he started singing the old folk song, which, by the way, itself ends with the singer forgetting all about his “lost and gone forever” Clementine as soon as he kisses her sister!