Is it too early to talk about next year's Oscars? Not when it comes to the category of "Writing (Original Screenplay)" and not when it's from Charlie Kaufman, who has already been nominated for his groundbreaking and mind-boggling original script for Being John Malkovich and weirdly adapted script for Adaptation.
Add to Kaufman's unique storytelling ideas the participation of visionary director Michel Gondry -- the two worked together on the under-appreciated Human Nature -- and the result is a film that's amazing to watch and somewhere between wondrous and troubling to think about. I saw it three weeks ago, and I still can't get it out of my head.
There's no doubt, though, that many viewers are going to be scratching their heads over it. This is one very challenging film -- in its structure, in its philosophy. The previews being shown in theaters and on TV make it look like a raucous Jim Carrey comedy. There are, indeed, some very funny moments, and Carrey remains one of our most gifted comic actors. But given what this film is about, it's much sadder than funny. I would advise anyone seeing the preview trailer coming on to turn away or change the channel. Not just because it's showing the wrong scenes, but because, as so many trailers do, it's simply showing too much.
Carrey plays Joel, a man who is alone, lonely and on a bad streak. His car has been hit. He needs to meet a new woman, but he's so shy he doesn't know how to make eye contact.
Flashback! Or is it a flash-forward? No matter. On a train trip getaway to a deserted beach in mid-winter, he bumps into, and then keeps bumping into, the blue-haired, pushy, talkative, eager Clementine (Kate Winslet). Accompanied by happy, flighty music from Jon Brion (who later makes the melodies quite haunting), she chats him up, edging closer right after announcing that "I'm a vindictive little bitch."
At this point of the film, it's impossible to tell if she's a) the new woman he needs to meet or b) the reason he needs to meet a new woman. What is clear is that she's in charge: He says he should go, but she gets him to stay. She gets him to accompany her out across a vast frozen river - nervously, of course. She's a free spirit; he's all wrapped up in knots.
And though it looks like everything is going to work out wonderfully for these two, in actuality, their meeting is the springboard into a world of hurt for both of them. It's a case of opposites initially attracting, then repelling. Before long, the mood changes from sadness to happiness to confusion to anger, and then back through all those hoops again. The genre changes from what appears to be romance to science fiction. And in short order, because writer and director have fashioned a wholly original piece of cinema that jumps around in both space and time and dreams and reality. It becomes difficult to grab on to anything solid while watching it.
Strange things are going on in Joel's mind. At one point, he visits Clementine at work and she appears not to have any idea of who he is. He wonders, with a hint of fear, "What's going on?" We wonder, with fascination, "What's going on?"
Answers do arrive, in the form of a company called Lacuna, which provides a special service -- this is the science fiction aspect -- that tinkers with people's memories. The film becomes a story about the fragility of memory, how precious our past thoughts are, what happens when we can or can't control them. But this isn't about Alzheimer's disease -- it's about a service that can take away unwanted memories.
That's about as much of the plot as will be revealed here.
But there's plenty to say about other elements of this startling film. Carrey once again proves that he doesn't need goofball comedy spinning around him to showcase his talents. There isn't a moment here where you don't feel for his sad-sack character - who, after all, merely wants to love and be loved. Winslet, who has had ups and downs in her short career, is on fire this time out. Her character jumps back and forth between being someone you root for and that vindictive bitch she calls herself. She changes character as often as she changes hair color. Out on the edges, in separate but very much related stories, are Tom Wilkinson as a brilliant doctor (who's not as in control as he'd like), Kirsten Dunst as his assistant (with a hidden agenda), Elijah Wood as a less-than-honest accomplice in romance (it's about time he played a bad guy), and an unrecognizable Mark Ruffalo as a technician (with his mind in all the wrong places).
There are a few special effects that are unhinging, maybe even horrifying to take in, once their implications are made clear, and there's the probability that no matter how happy things get for our lovebirds, there's a nightmarish confrontation waiting around the corner. Whether it's happening or it's a memory or it's imagined is up to whoever is watching the film. By the time it all jumps from real to surreal and back again, you'll know that no matter what scientific procedures are available in the future, this is a film you won't want to forget.