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.