Lynnea and I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind last night. The only other time I've seen it was in its theater release in 2004. It's weird to think how different everything was back then. Ben was two years old, I hadn't started grad school yet, and my first marriage still seemed more or less stable. Hard to believe, but it was nine years ago. I remembered very well that the movie was a good mind screw, but I hadn't remembered all the details, so really I went through the surprises all over again. Lynnea had not seen it before at all.
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
The thing that struck me most about the movie, and this may be a sign of an older perspective, is that the core relationship between Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, is a Very Bad Relationship. They get back together at the very end of the movie, but it's not a triumphant feeling that all is right with the world. It's more like "Wait, seriously?" They almost didn't get back together, and laid out very cogent reasons why they shouldn't. They remind themselves that he's boring and closed off, and she's a flighty, unstable alcoholic. They got on each others nerves in their original run, and there is no reason to think that the do-over won't be just as disastrous. It doesn't matter that Jim's character had some supremely happy memories of their old life. That still happens in bad relationships.
From the first scene, it became clear that Kate Winslet is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Since I recommended the movie, this made me a bit worried about how it would be played. The character may not have been an overused cliche in 2004, but it definitely is now, and I felt I was on the hook for it.
Luckily... TV Tropes helped me realize that the use of the MPDG in this movie was actually a subversion of sorts. The page for this movie points out a few things. First, Clementine actively resists the trope when she says "I'm not a concept, Joel. I'm just a fucked-up girl looking for my own peace of mind." Second, tropers seem to think that Clementine is "a deconstruction insofar as it shows what happens once the novelty of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl wears off and the meaning of the words becomes apparent." In other words, unlike the usual cliche, her behavior explicitly does not make her a HEALTHY ethereal muse for Jim Carrey. So if nothing else, the story is self-aware.
In the end we agreed: the movie made us both feel kind of uncomfortable, and that appears to be a big part of the point. So, in that sense, it is successful in its message.
That said, where the movie really succeeds is in some amazing cinematography. Lynnea mentioned that it's not easy to pull off a convincing dream sequence, but this is precisely where Eternal Sunshine nails it, repeatedly. All the scenes of reality disappearing, all the jarring time jumps, they add up to a really effective way of getting inside Jim Carrey's head. And "inside his head" is precisely where most of the plot takes place. IMHO it's not quite as good as Inception in this regard, but still pretty good.
The idea of tampering with people's memories ("technically, the whole process IS brain damage" the doctor explains nonchalantly) is a good staple of sci-fi, and I kept feeling like the movie was not doing enough to explore the sci-fi concepts. But in the end, this is not that movie. It really is a relationship movie -- I hesitate to call it a "romance" -- with some sci-fi elements for support. It has a pseudo-happy ending, but it is definitely not a feel good movie. The fact that it appears to be one on the surface level just makes the unsettling aspects of it more effective.