The movie opens with Joel Barish (a pale, gaunt Jim Carrey) struggling to get out of bed. Bemused and empty, he explains in a depressed, deadpan voiceover that Valentine's Day was "invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap." Joel sounds like Charlie Kaufman's version of Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, the nebbish with the self-pitying inner monologue that won't shut up. Joel, a black-and-white sort in a Technicolor world, calls in sick and takes the train to the beach, where it's too frigid for anyone but the already numb. There, he meets Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet, beneath mood-ring hair), the only other person wandering the shore. She flirts, he retreats, she harangues, he withdraws and she apologizes -- until at last, they're at her place, sharing wine and falling in love. It's the tentative beginning of a beautiful relationship. Or is it?
Then it's a year later, and Joel and Clementine are splits. But no, wait. Maybe it's a year earlier. Or maybe it's yesterday. Maybe the meeting we just saw wasn't the first time Joel and Clementine laid eyes on each other. Maybe it's just an altered memory. In time, Kaufman and Gondry, collaborators on 2001's hysterical, touching and inexplicably overlooked Human Nature, fill in all the blanks. You will come to understand why this couple loved each other and how they came to hate each other. You will be charmed and heartbroken by their relationship, which grows only more complicated the smaller it gets in the rearview mirror.
For much of the film, Joel is comatose, his head encased in a memory-zapping device designed by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and carelessly operated by Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood). Joel, realizing midway through the procedure that he doesn't want to lose his remaining memories of Clementine, struggles to wake up, to get these people out of his head and out of his life.
Patrick's new girlfriend happens to be Clementine, who doesn't recall a single second of her relationship with Joel, having had her own brain wiped clean. Patrick's a scheming bastard, wooing Clementine with Joel's discarded memories -- old pictures, entries from his journal, things plucked from Joel's head that Patrick uses to win Clementine's heart. Clementine has had Joel eradicated from her brain, but she falls for him all over again.
Eternal Sunshine feels like something entirely new. Scenes in which Joel and Clementine duck into his buried memories -- childhood traumas, for the most part -- to hide from Mierzwiak and Stan have the feel of fairy tale. He's a little boy again, getting a bath in the kitchen sink or stealing cookies off the table. Other moments, when Joel and Clementine realize they are losing their last remaining memories of each other, bear the weight of Greek tragedy. The magic of Eternal Sunshine is that the longer it plays, the shorter it feels. Just as we get to know Joel and Clementine, and as they get to know each other again, it's time to leave. But the movie, unlike most, is unforgettable.