Goof king Carrey plays it straight in `Eternal Sunshine'

But don't dare look for a totally normal character

Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

March 18, 2004|By Bob Strauss | Bob Strauss,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Jim Carrey is finally acting like a normal guy, but don't tell him that.

The manic comic superstar plays a depressed introvert, Joel Barish, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His character spends half the movie moping, the other half lying still in a semi-dream state. This is a far stretch from the high-amped, loose-limbed, silly-putty-faced antics that have made Carrey one of Hollywood's most bankable stars in the likes of Bruce Almighty, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Liar Liar, Dumb and Dumber, The Mask and the Ace Ventura movies.

And while Carrey regularly branches out, usually with less box-office success, into more serious-minded fare (The Truman Show, Man on the Moon, The Majestic), even those movies have made more use of his abundant on-screen energy than Sunshine does. But that's precisely why the new film's director, French music-video whiz Michel Gondry, wanted to cast him.

"It was interesting because Jim's character, on paper, was very quiet and guarded," Gondry says. "I thought, if I had somebody who had all of this energy to project all the time but they cannot do it, it would make some interesting tension."

Carrey, however, is not about to have anything he does described as normal.

"Joel's down to Earth to a certain extent," says the tall, 42-year-old actor, his hair shaved down to nubs for the filming of children's book adaptation Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. "But you've got to try to understand him on a deeper level because he's not normal. There's no such thing as normal in the first place, but, I mean, normal is abnormal to me."

Which is proven once we get a glimpse inside Joel's brain. Scripted by Charlie Kaufman, who specializes in mind-benders such as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Gondry's previous feature, Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine follows sad-sack Joel through his breakup with kooky commitment-phobic girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). One day, Joel is informed that she's had all memory of him scientifically deleted from her mind. To ease his pain, Joel requests an erasure of his own.

While the semi-professional mind-wash team (Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood and Tom Wilkinson) play out their own psychodramas all around his unconscious form, Joel begins to lose Clementine data. But midway during the process, he decides that he wants to retain some precious memories and starts fighting the process in his own head. The resulting dream logic situations become as surreal as anything we've ever seen Carrey do.

And this is a guy who talked out of his posterior.

"I was so impressed with the way that Jim really embraced being somebody else, someone who is quite, quite different from himself," Winslet says. "I actually have more of Clementine's character traits than Jim does Joel's. It was an enormous stretch for both of us but particularly tough for him to have to, probably, dig deeper inside himself to find some of the emotions that he had to bring to the surface in order to make Joel come to life."

Some of that emotion was not too deeply buried. Joel's lovelorn loneliness, for example. Carrey, who despite his often edgy comedy gambits, never fails to give off a sweet, fun-to-be-around vibe in person, has had his share of high-profile romantic failures in life. Asked if making the movie taught him anything about relationships, he explains that it doesn't come that easily.

"Life has taught me to be more patient with people's flaws, if anything," Carrey says. "I might have a successful lifetime love at some point, but I will never figure out why. There's always a certain feeling of compromise that comes with it, at least so far for me. That may be just the way it's supposed to be; it's a matter of whether you can accept that or not, I guess."

Carrey, who's been divorced twice, is no more willing to admit to a tragic love life than accept a definition of normal.

"I had a marriage that I have a beautiful daughter out of that lasted eight years," he says. Carrey and first wife Melissa Womer have a 16-year-old daughter, Jane. His brief second marriage, to Dumber co-star Lauren Holly, produced no children.

"We've got this lifetime measurement stick that we throw around in relationships," Carrey says. "I think that has to end -- that expectation has to end. I think people will be far better off when they don't expect to be given their whole life with someone. If 10 years is what it is, if five years or five months is what it is, then take what is good from it and move on. I think. And then you find the one that you don't want to disappoint, and you're in the same old trap again."

For film events, see Page 38.

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