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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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In Theaters


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Bob Smithouser

Movie Review

Joel Barish is a scruffy sad sack passively trudging through his mundane life. He lacks vision. He lacks passion. He can’t even make eye contact with women he doesn’t know. Then his lack of spontaneity meets its match in Clementine, a flaky, moody extrovert with a penchant for neon dye jobs. She needs affirmation. She also dwells in constant fear that she’s not living life to the fullest and encourages Joel to take risks. But before we see their relationship blossom, we learn that it’s already over. Two years have passed and Clementine has lost patience with Joel, inspiring her to have portions of her memory erased by Dr. Mierzwiak, a brain surgeon able to isolate undesirable memories and eliminate them.

Joel is crushed and pursues the procedure himself. He wants Clementine excised from his mind. Once sedated, he begins reliving the most recent, most volatile episodes from their relationship first. As the bad times slowly give way to earlier, more hopeful experiences, Joel decides he doesn’t want to let those memories go. He realizes that losing bittersweet memories is more painful than living with them. In a bizarre, dreamlike state, Joel relives highlights from his romance with “Clem” and tries to elude the surreal, memory-zapping efforts of Dr. Mierzwiak and his assistants, Patrick, Stan and Mary.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is basically a love story in reverse—a point subtly reinforced by portions of the soundtrack, which are musical scores played backwards. It’s a mind-bending journey written by Charlie Kaufman, best known for his work on other offbeat films such as Adaptation, Human Nature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Being John Malkovich.

Positive Elements

Joel chastises Clem for driving under the influence of alcohol, pointing out that her irresponsibility could have killed someone. The film suggests that adultery is damaging to everyone involved. Dr. Mierzwiak points out that a night of heavy drinking causes minor brain damage. When Joel and Clem listen in on the malicious remarks each had recorded about the other, it illustrates how devastating unkind words can be and the need to tame the tongue (James 3).

Spiritual Elements

Mary quotes existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (“Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders”) and neoclassicist poet Alexander Pope from his lovelorn work “Eloisa to Abelard” (“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 resigned”). There’s a fatalistic tone to the film as a whole as people who have their memories erased appear doomed to repeat the same mistakes. An episode of TV’s The Munsters plays in the background of one scene, during which Grandpa consults a book of magic potions and can be heard concocting one.

Sexual Content

Retreating into an embarrassing memory from childhood, Joel is shown masturbating to a pornographic comic book. Stan and Mary strip to their briefs and dance around before having sex (the act itself isn’t shown; afterward they cuddle wrapped only in a blanket). There’s brief rear male nudity. Joel speaks of having lived with his previous girlfriend, and shares an apartment with Clem. They talk and kiss in bed. Joel grabs Clem’s breasts and backside. There are several shots of her in her underwear. Clem is extremely forward and sexually aggressive, leading Joel to wonder who else she might be sleeping with. He accuses Clem of being promiscuous because that’s how she gets people to like her. In fact, the day they meet she jokes about seducing him. [Spoiler Warning] Mary kisses the married Dr. Mierzwiak, and learns that the two of them had carried on an affair before her memory of that indiscretion was erased. Patrick kisses Clem.

Violent Content

As children, bullies force Joel to pound a small animal with a hammer. The doctor’s wife slugs Stan. Joel and Clem pretend to suffocate one another with a pillow.

Crude or Profane Language

There’s a lot of harsh language, most notably 25 f-words, 35 misuses of God’s name (including 15 of “Jesus” and/or “Christ”), and more than a dozen s-words.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Clem is a lush. She spikes her morning coffee, drinks beer, asks for whiskey, raids a stranger’s liquor cabinet and damages Joel’s car while driving drunk. Upon meeting Joel, she invites him up to her place for a drink and jokes that being tipsy “makes the whole seduction part less repugnant.” Stan and Patrick consume beer. Stan and Mary smoke marijuana and she gets stoned (after drinking alcohol). Characters drag on cigarettes. Joel’s brother-in-law, Rob, offers him a joint. Rob argues that it’s okay to drive after smoking pot. Joel takes a prescription drug that knocks him out, and later gets injected with another sedative.

Other Negative Elements

Patrick acts unethically by using information about Joel’s romantic history to try to seduce Clem.


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a fascinatingly unique love story. Unlike tales told chronologically, it actually begins at the point of greatest conflict—where Joel and Clem are fed up with each other and she’s ready to split. Scenes proceed to walk the audience through the romance in reverse, offering insight into how the couple arrived at that place. It gradually moves away from anger and relational fatigue toward the sweet, awkward idealism that landed these unstable people together in the first place. Then they get a chance to start fresh. A clean slate. Furthermore, a bizarre twist gives them a glimpse of the hostile end their relationship will face if it plays out the way it did the first time.

It could’ve been the set-up for a great lesson about romantic pitfalls and how to build a healthy, lasting marriage. Imagine two disturbed people who boldly decide to redeem their second chance. To improve their relationship. To refine communication skills. To become other-oriented. To hone character. To actually commit for a lifetime.

But no, the existential worldview driving the film is more fatalistic and amoral than that. In the closing moments, Joel and Clem seem resigned to the fact that their union is doomed. They’re considered noble for their willingness to pursue whatever fun they can (including sex) before the whole thing goes down the toilet. All that matters is creating memories. So … then what? On to the next relational train wreck? That’s perfectly honorable as far as Kaufman and director Michel Gondry are concerned.

To suggest that individuals can improve themselves or their relationship for the purpose of life-long fidelity and true intimacy would be to impose a moral standard. It would imply that certain attitudes or lifestyles are better than others—or at least more functional. A notion Kaufman quashes: “I refuse to put a moral on it.”

At an even deeper level, this sentimental, yet cynical film seems to question a person’s ability to change. The Bible is clear that people can evolve. So can circumstances. We are not slaves to a predestined future, but shape our tomorrows with the choices we make today. The key is to understand our fallen nature and work to overcome it with God’s help. That requires effort. Selflessness. Integrity. The kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13. Sadly, the minds behind Eternal Sunshine eschew absolutes and embrace relativism. They esteem Nietzsche and profane the name of Christ. So maybe we shouldn’t marvel that the best Joel and Clem can hope to do is live in the moment and grab a little sunshine before it inevitably disappears over the horizon.

If the existentialists are to be believed, the couple’s relationship is a microcosm of life itself and the memories we make are all we really have. Christians know better. Despite some comical moments, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a sad, surreal drama about two lost souls who find in each other nothing more than a temporary high.

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Bob Smithouser