My thought on today

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No. 12: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)

“Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.” ~~Clementine Kruczynski

If it’s true that the course of love doesn’t run smooth, it’s also true that our memories of that trip don’t follow a timeline. In the beginning, there are the obvious landmarks: the first meeting, a tentative investigation; the first conversation; the first kiss. But once affection sours, time goes full Cuisinart on those recollections, scrambling them so hopelessly we couldn’t reorganize them if we tried.

Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) experience this reality not once but again and again in Michel Gondry’s tender and achingly beautiful “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a film with a script that mimics the curious effects of time upon our memories of lost love. Here, the end and the beginning bleed together, and they also cloud the way we see everything in the middle because the boundary lines are loose and fuzzy. Charlie Kaufman, who penned the knotty script, seems intent on drawing us in by providing all the answers and letting us ferret out the equation.

What’s so wonderfully original and mesmerizing about “Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind” is that Joel and Clementine are in the exact same position we are. Both find themselves in an odd situation with the facts of the present, yet they have no idea how they got there. And it takes quite some time before we figure out how they did, either. Since their story can’t quite be told in a linear fashion, let’s start somewhere in the muddy middle: On an uncharacteristic whim, timid loner Joel skips work and hops a train to Montauk. The ride back leads him to meet Clementine, a chatty free spirit with unruly blue hair (“I apply my personality in a paste,” she offers brightly) who’s sure she’s met Joel before. There’s an unexpected connection that threatens to become more, and that’s when everything goes pear-shaped: Seems Joel and Clem not only know each other, they used to be lovers. The reason neither remembers this has to do with Lacuna, Inc., an odd little business run by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) that specializes in erasing painful memories.

Additional stories funnel into “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” involving Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Stan (the invaluable Mark Ruffalo), Lacuna’s memory-vanquishing technicians, and Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Mierzwiak’s receptionist. Their lives intersect with Joel’s because they’re charged with erasing Clementine from his mind, and all three are so wrapped up in their own strange realities that they don’t realize Joel wants to stop the procedure right in the middle of it. Not that his protests matter, really; he’s hidden too far in his own mind to be heard. This makes his anguish all the more wrenching, for who hasn’t let heartbreak lead to a bad choice screaming to be taken back?

There are, perhaps, no appropriate words to describe what Carrey and Winslet bring to this bittersweet examination of love. The kooky plot requires them to anchor their characters in reality, make them human enough for us to suffer their hurts and feel their joy. Carrey quiets himself enormously to play Joel, a lonely man who guards his heart closely. Winslet’s more open but no less touching as Clementine, a woman whose flightiness covers a deep core of insecurity and self-awareness. Together, with their stirring chemistry, they make Joel and Clementine’s love story one of the greatest ever told. 

Worry not, though, that “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is some kind of repackaged epic romance with a comedic twist. Elements of the universal exist, certainly, but with Gondry behind the camera this is love story that feels almost shockingly intimate. We catch glimpses of under-the-cover confessions, lazy afternoon strolls, early dinners uncomfortable in their cold silence — the things no one ever sees. All the shots are so gorgeously lensed, so precisely placed and edited, that what we have is a story told in scattered Polaroids. And sometimes it’s the snapshots, creased and smudged with fingerprints, we keep closest to our hearts.

Welcome the weirdness: Sean Penn joins “Stooges” production

Sean Penn fans are a fanatical bunch. (Trust me. I am one.) We use the good — his performances in “Fast Times,” “Dead Man Walking,” “21 Grams” and “Mystic River” for starters — to excuse away all the paparazzi beatings, the awkward interviews, the bizarrely off-putting behavior, the snide comments, the moments when he made it, in his words, so hard to appreciate him. And we tend to believe he can do anything, or we at least appreciate the fact that he’ll damn near kill himself trying. I mean, the guy directed a Jewel music video.

But playing Larry Fine in the Farrelly brothers’ 2010 send-up to “The Three Stooges”? Alongside Benicio Del Toro as Moe and Jim Carrey as Curly?

Somebody call Robert Downey Jr. I think Penn just went full retard … again.

And yet, as tempted as I — and so many fans — might be to write this off as pure lunacy, I can’t quite do it. Penn can do comedy; anybody who’s seen “Fast Times” knows that. He was low-key and funny in his “Friends” and “Two and a Half Men” cameos. He found pain and, more importantly, humor in “Milk.” Is it really so difficult to believe there’s a sense of humor buried beneath all those layers and layers of seething rage that would make Ray Liotta hide under the bed with his yellow blankie?

Lest you think I’m some sort of weirdo with a Sean Penn shrine made of cold cuts in my closet, I’ll go a step further and say there are two more reasons why “The Three Stooges” could, in theory, work: Benicio Del Toro and Jim Carrey. Think about it. No, really, think about it. With his mumbly, indecipherable accent, wasn’t Del Toro the funniest character in “The Usual Suspects”? Then there’s “Excess Baggage,” where he played a bewildered, bumbling accidental kidnapper who easily matched wits with Alicia Silverstone. He nailed the physical comedy there; I think Del Toro can pull this off. And love him or hate him, Carrey’s cornered the market on spastic slapstick and comical yet disturbing facial expressions — The Mask,” “Ace Venture: Pet Detective,” “Dumb and Dumber” … you get the picture. He could do this in his sleep; in fact, I think that’s how he made “Liar Liar.”

Yes, the only potential weak link is, uh, the directors (and the top, I admit, is not a primo spot for a weak link). Bobby and Peter Farrelly had their heyday in the 1990s, peaking with “Kingpin” (good) and “There’s Something about Mary” (eh). But “The Heartbreak Kid” flopped like Nemo on dry land; even Rob “I’m growin’ out my bangs” Corddry couldn’t save it. So it all hinges on whether the Brothers Dim try to force this ragtag trio to ape the real Stooges (bad idea!) or let Penn, Del Toro and Carrey find their characters themselves (great idea!).

As for me, I’m thinking this movie’s way to success. What? There’s a reason “The Secret” has sold a quintillion copies worldwide. Just, uh, do me a favor and don’t tell Penn. He’d probably mock me.

Quick Picks: “Valkyrie,” “Yes Man”

“Valkyrie” (Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson)

In “Tropic Thunder,” he did the unthinkable: resurrected an air-sucking, headed-toward-the-light acting career. Does he do it again in “Valkyrie,” Brian Singer’s tense, understated thriller about a failed 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, seize control of Germany and wave a white flag to the Allies? Not quite. Then again, Cruise’s in-control performance as party loyalist-turned-traitorous schemer Col. Claus von Stauffenberg isn’t meant for show. Neither is Singer’s somber, commendably even-handed creation . Every scene is measured and precise, planned and executed with military-like precision. The same goes for the film’s best performances — Wilkinson’s buttoned-up, duplicitious Gen. Friedrich Fromm is bone-chilling, while Branagh practically sweats sheer desperation. If it all seems a little too muted and by-the-book, beware: the tension surprises you, and so does “Valkyrie.”

Grade: B+

“Yes Man” (Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Terence Stamp)

A movie about a man who says “yes” to every question? Sounds like the makings of a) Eddie Murphy’s moronical, pratfall-heavy next project or b) a tender, smartly observed comedy about life and learning. Wrong. But either movie might be better than the disappointingly blah “Yes Man.” Carrey tries hard as Danny, a sourpuss who keeps life at bay until a self-help guru (Terence Stamp) convinces him to open up. Enter the ever-quirky Deschanel as Allison, Danny’s polar-opposite love interest. Shock of shocks, Deschanel and Carrey have a delightfully peppery chemistry. And Carrey has a zippy rapport with Brit Rhys Darby, who plays Norman, his adorably zany dolt of a boss (think Michael Scott a la “The Office”). But don’t expect the same kind of zing from “Yes Man,” which tries so hard to be ingratiating and cute that it’s about as sincere as, well, a real-life yes man.

Grade: C