Just about the first thing we learn about Joel Barish is that he is—in his own words—"in a funk." He impulsively calls in sick to work and takes a lonely train out to a cold, windy beach in February. There, he sits looking at his blank journal and thinking about how it reflects his blank, meaningless life—and we can't help but notice how the landscape and the whole color palette of the film up until now has been very gray and bleak.
All of this tells us that Joel is a hot mess. He even thinks about getting back with his ex, Naomi… and it's not that we know Naomi, but we do know that hankering after an old lover is not often a sign of a happy, healthy kind of person. But more on that later.
So, then what happens? Clementine happens. She comes in with her bright blue hair and her orange sweatshirt, and immediately, we get a contrast to the bleakness of the rest of the film so far.
Clem is totally different from Joel. She's quirky and talkative and quick to make friends. She's immediately drawn to Joel (opposites attract?), and so she goes to talk to him. What else would she do? Joel, the most timid guy on the planet, sure isn't going to go up and talk to her. As he himself says, he can't make eye contact with a woman he doesn't know.
Basically, Joel needs Clem's spontaneity to give his dull world some color. It's no wonder that he wants to be with her.
But let's fast forward a bit, because it's time to be real: that whole "opposites attract" thing we were talking about sure goes south pretty quickly.
It's really easy to blame Clem in all this: she is the impulsive one who erases Joel, after all. Couldn't they have just worked things out? Well, maybe not. As we take a trip back through Joel's mind, we see that poor Joel wasn't always so nice.
Let's take a quick look at some of Joel's not so great moments. He calls Clem a "wino" and says he assumes she has had sex with someone because that's just how she gets people to like her. He tells Clem that "constantly talking isn't necessarily communicating" while simultaneously blowing off her desire for him to open up. He essentially tells her she isn't ready to be a mom because she isn't mature enough to take care of a kid.
Need we go on?
So, yeah, the "nice" Joel Clem liked on the train turns out to be not quite so nice in the long run. We're not making excuses for Clem's impulsive decision, but we can clearly see what motivated it. While she may have initially been able to make some of Joel's sadness go away, his gloomy, pessimistic attitude eventually contributes to the downfall of the relationship.
But don't worry: it all works out in the end. Sort of… Maybe….
Despite Joel's Lacuna procedure, Clem seems to have left a lasting impression on him that even the procedure can't erase. Would the old Joel have made an impulsive decision to go to a seemingly random beach in February instead of going to work? Would old Joel have offered some random girl he talked to on the train a ride home—and then gone inside for a drink?
We also need to think about Joel's perspective in his final memory. In this memory, he and Clem are sitting on the beach where they met for the first time, and Clem tells him that this is it and asks him what they should do. Joel's response: "Enjoy it."
We've seen Joel pretty much running like a chicken with its head cut off through all of his other memories, so this is a big deal. It seems as if our boy has finally come to realize the importance of memory, and he simply wants to fully remember and experience this last moment with Clem, cherishing even the infancy of what they had—before it was all stripped away.
During the erasure process, although Joel runs from one memory to another; he's not actually manipulating the memories—because he can't. What happened happened; there are no alternatives. But something changes. When he is about to leave the house on the beach, and Clem tells him to stay this time, Joel actually deviates from the predetermined course, breaking free from the constraints of his past.
Is this a happy ending? We'll never truly know, but this certainly makes Joel's final decision to try again with Clem look a bit more optimistic. Maybe he's found the courage to be in a real relationship this time.
The term "manic pixie dream girl" has really taken off since it was coined by Nathan Rabin, a film critic who was responding to Kirsten Dunst's character in Elizabethtown. Here's how Rabin describes such ladies: "[T]hat bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures" (source).
Wow, does that not sound exactly like what Joel thinks of Clementine Kruczynski? She's fun and spontaneous, and he is just stuck in a rut. His life is dull and gray, but Clem is going to teach him to live and feel, and it's going to be great. Of course, these dream girls themselves don't really matter: they're always perfectly content, and they're totally on board with fixing the downtrodden male protagonist.
This is really where the whole conflict of the movie starts, even if we don't quite catch on until the end. In Barnes & Noble, for example—only the second time Joel and Clem have seen each other—Clem tells Joel straight up, "Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a f***ed-up girl who's looking for my own peace of mind. Don't assign me yours."
Joel's response? "I still thought you were gonna save my life, even after that."
Clem is highly aware of how she is viewed She knows that men see her as more of an idea than as a real person; she's an add-on to their lives that relieves them of their own pain or monotony or whatever they're trying to escape. Joel is so blinded by this idea that he practically doesn't hear her.
And it turns out Clem is right. She may be fun, but she's not without her own personality. She's an actual person with actual character, and she definitely has some problems of her own. She might like to drink a bit too much, for one thing, and maybe isn't aware of why Joel would think she's too immature to be a mother.
But the biggest problem is that she gets bored with Joel, and she starts to feel trapped. At first, opposites attract, but over time, that attraction wears off, and both Joel and Clem are repelled by their differences. "Nice" might have sounded great to Clem at first, but in the end, "nice," all by itself, definitely doesn't cut it.
But this is where Clem as a character gets a bit tricky. Most of Eternal Sunshine actually takes place in Joel's mind, meaning that all characters except for Joel himself are merely projections of Joel's subconscious.
In other words, the Clem we see in Joel's head isn't actually Clem—it's merely Joel's projection of Clem, and so we never really know for sure whether this truly represents her character. If all we see of Clem is Joel's projection of her, is it possible for us to know what she is actually like?
Of course, all of Joel's memories are based on something, so even if Clem gets a bit distorted in his mind, there is some basis in reality. In the memories, for example, there's no evidence that Clem sleeps with people to get them to like her, even though Joel accuses her of this on his tape. So it looks like Joel's memories aren't just making stuff up—otherwise, they might show Clem getting around. So if the memories aren't influenced by Joel's anger or frustration in that way, it seems safe to say they are reasonably accurate.
But then who is really coming up with Clem's ideas? Clem, after all, is the one who suggests that Joel try to wake himself up, which almost sort of works. Then Clem has the idea to hide in memories that are off the map, and later on, she suggests they use Joel's repressed memories for extra protection. So if Clem is part of Joel's mind, how is she thinking these things, and not Joel himself?
There's no right answer, but we think Clem might be taking on the savior role that Joel initially gave to her. Joel is stuck thinking of Clem as the manic pixie dream girl he wants her to be, and it's only in Joel's happy memories that Clem actually takes on this role and comes up with great ideas. Maybe Joel's decision to try and hang on to these memories is really a regression back into a flawed understanding of who Clem is and what she can do for him.
That's possible. But the fact that Joel is technically in charge here may show us that he's able to take on this role for himself and be an equal partner for Clem this time around.
It all depends on your perspective.
Whether you think of Dr. Howard Mierzwiak as a savior who can rid the world of all its problems or as a greedy man who's just causing more, there's no doubt that he is the main catalyst for all the craziness in Eternal Sunshine.
At first, it's easy for us to dismiss Howard as the second of those options. It seems like memory erasure is only bound to cause a whole lot of hurt and pain when people get stuck in the same relational cycle, and on top of that, we'd just like to point out that this dude isn't just removing some random external events from people's memories—he's literally taking away a parts of their identities (see our "Themes" section for all the deets).
While the Lacuna procedure may not have been a happy experience for Joel, we can't deny that the procedure does have some potentially good uses. Did you notice the poor older lady sitting next to Joel in the Lacuna reception room with her dog bowl labeled "Buster"? Everyone knows the worst part of own a pet is the whole dying thing; if only dogs could live to be one hundred in human years. We have to ask, is it really so bad to enjoy the companionship of a dog and then forget you had a dog so that you don't have to feel the pain of loss?
Yeah, wait, on second thought, that doesn't sound so great, after all, does it? Isn't it maybe better to work through pain rather than just delete it?
Well, okay, there's also supposedly a cut sequence involving a war veteran going to get the Lacuna procedure done so that he can forget the horrendous death and destruction of the battlefield. Lacuna as a cure for PTSD? That sounds slightly more legit.
So maybe we can agree that Howard might have had good intentions, but it things get a lot iffier when we consider his personal use for the Lacuna procedure. He's a married man and a father who has an affair with a younger woman and then possibly got her pregnant (that's in the deleted scenes). What better way to deal with an affair and its consequences than to just delete all memory of it? You can do what you want, whenever you want, and then just make everyone forget about it.
Yeah, Howard. We're not so convinced that's such a fantastic idea.
In Mary's tape, we hear Howard say "we agreed" to the Lacuna procedure, but coming him, it feels more like he "strongly suggested" it to Mary, and she gave in. Regardless, using this technology to basically undo a personal mistake is at the very least questionable. We really hope it wasn't Howard himself doing the erasing.
There's a strange parallel between our protagonist and ol' Howie. If we think about the degeneration of Joel and Clem's relationship, a lot of it is centered around poor communication—and sometimes just the lack of communication, plain and simple. The fact is that Howard is not much better at communicating than Joel is—and that's saying a lot.
When Mary is upset and crying, for example, Howard could simply address the issue head on, or at least try and console and reason with her with his words instead of his mouth. And when his wife finally lets it all out, he's basically all, "Oh, yeah, honey, so I was having an affair, but I've got to get back to work for know. Don't worry! We'll talk about it later."
Howard's a big fan of saving communication for later; he pulls the exact same thing on Stan. "We'll talk," Howard tells him—but what he really means is: "We'll talk, but definitely not right now… and maybe this whole thing will just go away." Maybe as a doctor who erases people's memories, that logic makes sense. But if there's something Eternal Sunshine is trying to say, it might be that forgetting is not a substitute for communicating.
It's not until Mary Svevo comes over to Joel's house that we realize she's going to become more than just the Lacuna receptionist. But, you know, then she and Stan get stoned and start lying around on Joel's bed, and things start to look a little different.
Speaking of Stan and Mary on Joel's bed, here's what they actually have to say to each other:
STAN: The Clash... the only band that mattered. They called themselves that for a reason.
MARY: It's amazing, isn't it?
STAN: —Like social justice
MARY: Yeah, it's totally incredible. What Howard gives to the world.
Mary only has one thing on her mind (surprise: it's Howard), so it's no surprise that when the procedure goes wrong, the first thing she suggests is to call Howard. Not only is she sitting in a chair with basically nothing on but a blanket, she's also really worried about Howard seeing her when she's high. Let's not even mention the fact that she shouldn't really be there at all. But none of this matters: she takes some eye-drops, throws her clothes back on, and fluffs her hair so she can answer the door for Howard—who is not particularly happy to see her there.
Well, when Howard arrives, Mary gets all tongue-tied about why she's there, and pretty soon, she's calling Alexander Pope Pope Alexander, and she's telling Howie how she just really reaaally admires his work. Then there's a kiss, and the rest is history.
Like, literally. It's actually all happened before. Mary and Howard had an affair, and then Howard erased all Mary's memories of it.
After the truth blows up, Mary is seriously upset. She wants to find out more, so she listens to herself on tape talking about the affair Howard, and she can't believe it. If you do a little Googling, you might even be able to find an extended version of this scene, during which she listens to herself talk about getting an abortion. So, yeah—it gets even more serious, and it's no wonder Mary takes drastic action to make sure this doesn't happen to other people.
Actually, wait a minute. Isn't she just doing to others the same thing that just happened to her? Isn't ignorance bliss? Will she be effective in breaking a cyclical nature of human behavior? It turns out that Mary is a lot more than "a stupid girl with a stupid crush"—she makes us question not just the ethical implications of the Lacuna procedure but the nitty-gritty of dealing with this dilemma after it's happened to you.
This interview with actor Mark Ruffalo will give you basically everything you need to know about Stan. He's a throwback, retro guy with a fauxhawk and glasses who just wants to chill with a beer and put on a Clash album. He's a simple guy.
But no, really, that's about all we know about Stan. He may not have the best work ethic in the world, what with all the drinking and smoking and mostly naked dancing on patients' beds, but he also doesn't seem like a bad dude.
We believe him when he says he didn't know the truth about Mary and Howard. He seems to genuinely care about Mary—he even supports her decision to leave Lacuna—and while he might bag on Patrick a bit much… it's Patrick, so we can't really blame him.
Stan's just another guy caught in the Lacuna web, doing his job (sort of) and trying not to worry too much about the ethics of it all. He's even responsible enough to call Howard when he can't figure out where Joel is, despite the fact he is naked and at least a little drunk and high.
As for the whole horn-honking thing, we'll let you decide whether he was being a good guy trying to help a brother out and save a marriage, or whether his attempt to conceal the kissing was just a low blow to poor Hollis.
We don't really get to know a whole lot about Patrick, aside from the fact that he doesn't seem to have much luck with the ladies. He's convinced that Mary hates him, but Mary seems so sweet that we don't see how this could be the case… until Mary comes over and is so blatantly unamused by his googly-eyed glasses that we realize he's definitely right.
When Patrick finally does get a girlfriend, he's way excited about it. The only trouble is that his new girlfriend is a former patient—yeah, it's totally Clementine.
Basically, Patrick spent one single night watching over Clementine's unconscious body, and he fell in love with her. And then he stole her panties. A real winner, this guy.
In the end, of course, nothing actually works out for Patrick. He takes his mimicking of Joel too far and gets burned. Honestly, it's kind of hard to feel sorry for the guy. He may be just another lonely dude desperate for a woman in his life, but he's also a total creep. Maybe he's just never heard of Tinder?
Also, did you notice what happens to Patrick's eyes when Joel sees him in his dream? They are freaky and distorted in some way that's hard to see; they may be inverted. That's a bad sign right there, showing us that something is pretty wrong with this guy.
In the end, Patrick doesn't necessarily change the course of the film or how we think about it; he's just another incentive for Joel to keep his memories. He also highlights some of the possible ethical problems inherent in memory erasure and mind invasion.
Rob and Carrie don't get a whole lot of screen time, but that doesn't mean they aren't important. While they serve as minor catalysts that help forward the plot, they more importantly serve as a foil for Clem and Joel's relationship.
Rob and Carrie are pretty endearing. They care about Joel—though maybe they care about him in different ways: Rob wants to give him the straight truth, while Carrie wants to save him from the pain. Either way, we know they are Joel's friends and have his best interests in mind, and so we like them.
But their relationship itself is definitely not hunky-dory. The first time we see their troubles comes when they have to make the big decision whether or not to give Joel the Lacuna letter about Clem. During their discussion, Carrie gets very upset; she throws laundry on Rob and storms upstairs. She also tells Rob to "give it a rest" when he suggests they smoke a joint while Joel is upset. Sure, this may not have been the most sensitive solution, but Joel was only trying to help.
While none of their other arguments is all that serious, there's rarely a scene in which Rob and Carrie are a perfect, loving couple. The next time we see them, Joel is still upset, and Rob is loudly banging away on a birdhouse. Carrie again wants him to "give it a rest" which makes Rob mad because, hey, the dude just wants to build his birdhouse. And so on.
These are petty things but the point is that despite the fact that Rob and Carrie don't always get along, they still know each other. No one's been to Lacuna recently (at least as far as we know), and they seem to be able to deal with their small arguments and still be a successful couple. They seem to be in the film to remind us that there was a time before Lacuna, which means that Lacuna is not an answer to all our problems. As Joel begins to think, maybe it's best to work things out instead of taking the easy route and forgetting everything.