As it first appears onscreen, the world depicted in 2004’s cult-classic romantic dramedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is recognizably our own: drab, mundane, bad weather. But once the film (directed by French iconoclast Michel Gondry) finally reveals its big hook—a shady, low-rent medical produce allowing patients to fully erase failed relationships from their past memories—Eternal Sunshine’s familiar urbanite milieu suddenly becomes a surreal, terrifying landscape where reality is malleable and all expectations are thrown out the window of a sparsely populated Montauk-bound commuter train.
Similar to the eerie brainscape Jim Carrey’s sadsack protagonist Joel Barrish suddenly finds himself occupying, we too now find ourselves in a similarly uncertain state of being, quarantined to our homes as a global pandemic rages binge-watching Tiger King and coordinating Craigslist drops with suburban war profiteers to stock up on a few extra rolls of toilet paper.
And so, even though it was only a month ago, our Film Independent Presents March 4 Live Read of Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine screenplay onstage at the DGA Theater in Hollywood already feels, itself, like a distant memory being reluctantly wrenched further and further into the distance by Tom Wilkinson’s well-meaning mind-eraser Dr. Mierzwiak.
One of the final live events to take place as part of Film Independent’s robust 2020 programming calendar before such offerings were nudged online by the dread COVID-19, March 4’s Live Read was ably guided by guest director Brett Haley, a Film Independent Fast Track Fellow and director of buzzy indies such as I’ll See You in My Dreams, The Hero and Hearts Beat Loud.
Following an opening musical performance by Miya Folick, Haley took the stage to introduce his cast. First, though, he shared that he had recently spoken to the semi-reclusive Kaufman by phone “for about 25 minutes,” during which Haley said he fawned over Eternal Sunshine as, “My generation’s love story, [that] understands the duality of love in all its pain and glory.”
According to Haley, Kaufman was nonplussed, saying of his Oscar-winning script, “It was a movie I made once. People seem to like it.” Kaufman also said told him that the reason he doesn’t do many interviews is so as to avoid coloring the viewer’s own interpretation or emotional response. Haley was struck by Kaufman’s humble nature. “It really is all about the work,” he said, admiringly.
Actors Bridget Regan and Ryan Hunter filled a variety of small parts, while Hearts Beat Loud star Kiersey Clemons took on the role of squirrely Lacuna, Inc. sleep tech Patrick, originally played by Elijah Wood. Live Reads regular Jay Duplass assumed the role of Mierswiak. Previously announced Kumail Nanjiani was waylaid at the last minute, ably replaced in the role of Lacuna tech Stan (originally Mark Ruffalo) by Live Reads veteran Nick Kroll, and Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran too returned, as naïve Lacuna tech Mary (Kirsten Dunst).
Then it was time for the leads. Silicon Valley’s Martin Starr appeared to play Joel, while the impulsive, alcoholic Clementine—originally played by Kate Winslet—was brought to life by none other than Tessa Thompson. Starr in particular was given a chance to showcase his considerable skills as a dramatic actor, regularly seen in indies such as 2016’s Operator, but less apparent in his comedy work.
The cast settled in behind their scripts and the theater filled with the sounds of composer Jon Brion’s melancholic Eternal Sunshine original score, which faded out as Haley began to narrate, starting with the first (or was it?) fumbling meet-cute between Starr’s Joel and Thompson’s Clementine.
Their interactions were so delicate—at some points barely above a whisper—that the DGA Theater fell into a captivated hush, as if the growing spark between the two characters was as fragile as the flame of a flickering candle. Starr’s muted performance style, in fact, is much more naturally suited to the introvert Joel than Carrey’s manic screen presence, creating a dynamic with Thompson’s Clementine that was almost too excruciatingly real and awkward to watch.
The script eventually jumps ahead (backwards?) to find Joel at his wit’s end, distressed by a note from the mysterious Lacuna, Inc. informing him that Clem has impulsively erased him from her memory. Incensed, he opts for the same treatment. Here is where we meet Duplass’s tragi-comic doctor and Lacuna’s wider constellation of lovelorn oddballs: Tran’s Mary, dating Kroll’s Stan while not-so-subtly pining for Mierzwiak from afar, and—in an inspired bit of gender-blind casting—Clemons as the unethical Patrick, who uses his knowledge of Joel and Clem’s relationship to seduce the freshly-wiped Clem behind Joel’s back.
Inevitably, as the Lacuna techs begin the process of extracting Clementine from Joel’s brain, the storytelling becomes more frenzied, jumping in and out of Joel’s brain and, when inside Joel’s head, backwards and forwards in time, skipping from vignette to vignette to chart the ebb and flow of the couples’ relationship.
Unconventional narratives like this can often be difficult to follow, but Kaufman’s writing and the thoughtful performances of the Live Read actors made it easy to track linear emotional sense. Leading, of course, to the film’s bittersweet ending, wherein the rebooted versions of Joel and Clementine decide, once again, to give it a go despite the fact that they both know the relationship is probably doomed.
Backstage, the mood was ebullient, with the cast embracing each other and hugging it out over a job well done. Likely the last such time any of them, or anyone, was able to freely engage in such a socially non-distant way—for now.
Film Independent’s March 4 Live Read of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was presented in partnership with the Directors Guild of America, supported by Lead Sponsor HFPA and with additional support from the NEA.
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