Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who first gained notoriety invading the brain of John Malkovich in the cheekily titled Being John Malkovich, now gets inside the head of Jim Carrey in the even more daringly named Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The title comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, and even though exhibitors may grumble as they attempt to post all those letters on the marquee, this is the most satisfying effort to date from the eccentric writer who memorably wrestled with his own alter ego in 2002's Adaptation. It also marks the arrival of music-video wizard Michel Gondry as a major new name in features.

The premise is a delicious one: What if there existed a medical lab which could enable you to blot out particularly unpleasant memories? Thanks to a clerical error, Joel Barish (Carrey) discovers his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has done just that--to him. Joel makes an appointment for his own memory wipe at the Lacuna lab, but midway through the process, he starts to realize that a Lacuna technician has stolen Clementine's data and taken his place in her life. Gondry and Kaufman escort us on a wild cinematic ride through Joel's brain as he fights to save his memories of Clementine and somehow keep their dying relationship alive.

Gondry (profiled elsewhere in this issue) is one of the most visionary artists working in music-videos today, best-known for his sensational work with Björk and The White Stripes. His first feature, Human Nature (also written by Kaufman), was a comedy filled with ideas, but not much of a commercial or critical success. Eternal Sunshine (for which he shares a story credit with Kaufman and artist Pierre Bismuth) provides Gondry the opportunity to experiment with narrative as freely as he has in his time and space-bending three-minute masterpieces. There's a Kafkaseque thriller aspect to the tale, as Joel attempts to find corners of his own mind where the Lacuna technicians won't detect him with Clementine--his best bets are scenes of childhood (prompting a zany sequence in his mother's kitchen) and moments of humiliation (like the time his mother caught him masturbating). This tricky story is also surprisingly poignant, mourning the emotional losses as a relationship turns from romantic to bitter; ironically, as Joel tunnels deeper into his brain, his memories of Clementine become sweeter, moving past their recent rancor to the early spark between them.

Gondry uses all his imaginative resources--sleight-of-hand set transitions, surreal juxtapositions, optical illusions--to keep the narrative flowing like a dream. Yet there's also a realistic foundation to the visuals, thanks to Ellen Kuras' sharp location photography during a stark New York winter.

Adding another layer of conviction to the crazy conceit is a first-rate cast. Carrey largely keeps his manic side in check, opting instead to accentuate Joel's hurt as he reels from Clementine's rejection, and his stoicism as he tries to foil his own mind warp. Winslet somehow keeps Clementine attractive without compromising her flaky, moody, altogether demanding side. The always excellent Tom Wilkinson gradually exposes the serious character flaws in the haughty founder of Lacuna, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, and Kirsten Dunst has some heartbreaking moments once the subplot involving her secretary character bears fruit. And Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood have fun with Kaufman's notion of Lacuna technicians as low-tech, irresponsible goofoffs.

Kaufman's scripts have always centered on human vulnerability and neediness, but this is his most mature and genuinely affecting tall tale to date. And with Gondry's assured execution, the film's complex design never overwhelms, but in fact enhances its emotional core. Eternal Sunshine is truly one of the bright spots of the new movie year.

-Kevin Lally