A couple of years ago, there was nearly a strike in Hollywood about - amongst other things - the possessive credit. This is when a film opens with the legend 'A Film By Reuben Claxheim' or something similar. Where the same person writes and directs the film, this seems fair enough, but it's the instances when the director appears to ignore the writer's creative contribution that caused the dispute.
But it does seem to be the case that films are defined by their star or director, rather than their writer. Everyone thinks in terms of Hitchcock films, barely aware of the army of scribes the great man employed. It's just one of those things. Well, except in the case of Charlie Kaufman, arguably the only star screenwriter currently working. Kaufman is the man responsible for the acclaimed Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and now he's written Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry.
This is the rather Phildickian tale of Joel (Jim Carrey), a New York cartoonist coming off the back of an ugly break-up with his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). Already distraught, he is very nearly traumatised to learn that she has had all memories of him erased by Dr Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his rather shabby team of assistants. Understandably, Joel decides to wipe Clementine from his own memory, not realising that once begun, there's no way of halting the process...
This being a Kaufman script the plot is inevitably much less straightforward than that precis makes it sound. This is certainly a much denser and stranger film than the cast list (which includes Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood) would suggest, and anyone turning up for some knockabout laughs with Jim Carrey acting like a gimp is in for a rude awakening. (I suspect this film may generate some rather poisonous word-of-mouth because of this - two people quite separately stumped past me muttering 'Boring crap' at the end of the screening I went to.) Eternal Sunshine is essentially more of the neurotic surrealism that Kaufman is famous for, grounded by some naturalistic cinematography and some affecting performances.
Truth be told (and as anyone who read last summer's Bruce Almighty review will know) I'm not a particular fan of either Carrey or Winslet in normal circumstances - but here they are both likeable and touching, particularly in the film's opening sequence (some films have a twist ending - this probably qualifies, but goes one better and also has what's arguably a twist beginning!). That said, many of their scenes together are set in Joel's rapidly-dwindling memory, and - despite some visual pyrotechnics from Gondry - things do get a tiny bit samey. It's probably just as well that there's another major strand revolving around the messed-up relationships of Mierzwiak's employees, who have a convincing and amusingly shambolic attitude to their work. Dunst is good, but then she can do sweet-and-vulnerable-but-troubled in her sleep. Rather more interesting is the way that Elijah Wood has opted to play a rather less than wholly sympathetic character in his first post-Baggins outing - he makes an impressive job of it, too.
But I can't help feeling that, overall, Kaufman is writing himself into a Shyamalan-esque corner - Eternal Sunshine doesn't have anything like the novelty value of his earlier films. It's not actually a bad film, but it's neither as clever or as funny as the best of his work. The fact that there's already been one film about memory erasure already this year (and I feel certain there have been more, but I can't remember what they were) isn't exactly a help.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is essentially an arthouse movie that's somehow lucked into getting an A-list cast and a major release. It's a well-played, intelligently written and directed piece of work - even if the conclusion feels like the film is straining too hard to surprise the audience. I liked it, but even so, I don't think it's nearly as original or witty as it thinks it is. And Kaufman's reputation as a 'name' should stay intact: this is one for his fans more than those of Carrey or Winslet.