Sunday, May 29, 2011

Incredible Sunshine of Charlie Kaufman's Mind

Screen-writer Charlie Kaufman won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the 2004 film ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. It was his third nomination in a short time span. Rarely has such an original voice been heard in Hollywood films. Kaufman's first nominated film was 1999'S BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, a trippy comedy about a dweeb (John Cusack)who discovers a wormhole into the brain of one of our finest but perhaps oddest actors. Along for the wild ride are Cameron Diaz, the hilarious Catherine Keener, and Malkovich playing himself to the hilt. The film, like most of Kaufman's work, has the feeling of Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND, where a character is swept into wild adventures beyond his control. A bizzare, laughable concept becomes one of the most delightful comedies in the last twenty years.

ADAPTATION, 2002, is another strange concept. Based on Susan Orlean's book THE ORCHID THIEF, the film stars Nicolas Cage as screen writer Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald. Charlie has hit a writer's block in trying to adapt Orlean's book to the screen, and his brother, a hack writer, jumps into the breach. Donald interviews Susan (played with wild comic gusto by Meryl Streep), but doesn't quite believe her story. So the brothers follow her to the Florida swamp where the orchid thief(Chris Cooper, hysterical) lives. What follows is one of the most hilarious and suspenseful endings a movie could have, and it owes much to the real Kaufman's witty imagination and the actors who play it straight making ADAPTATION a heady comic mix.

It is difficult to choose which of the three original films by Kaufman that I like best, but ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND seems to have more pathos, heart, and internal logic than the others. It tells the story of Joel(Jim Carrey in a wonderfully expressive performance), a repressed, lonely young man, who meets an unstable free spirit Clementine, played by Kate Winslet. After a final clash, Clem goes to a memory cleaning office and has all her memories of Josh erased. As Josh realizes what she has done, he decides it's too painful to live with her memories, and he follows suit. Naturally, things go awry, and Kaufman's ingenious plotting, director Michel Gondry's swift and unlinear cutting, and the performances of a delicious cast (Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Kristin Dunst, and Mark Ruffalo) make it that much more fun. Though the sci-fi or fantasy elements are fun, at heart it is the love story between two lonely people that is the glue that makes ETERNAL SUNSHINE a major work.

Here is the source of the title:

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd.

From Alexander Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard,' in which the only saving grace of a doomed love affair is fading memory.

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