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Meet me at the fun maze tonight 

Finally.

            But first: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind begins disappointingly enough. Jim Carrey plays Joel, an uptight square who decides to ditch his job and head for the beach on a cold winter day. Intrusive, mostly unnecessary voiceover covers all of this.

            There he meets, against his will, bohemian-looking Clementine (Kate Winslet), who seems poised to barge into his life and shake it all up. We've seen it all before, of course, in Something Wild and in countless other movies like it --- it's basically a mini-genre.

            But this time it seems a little different. The camera twinges uncertainly when it could be still, and their conversations seem less a formulaic construct than an actual interaction. And something seems a little off with Clementine's antics. She seems less zany and fun than embarrassingly adolescent. Almost repellent, really, considering what a brat she is being for a 30-something adult.

            This is no mistake. It is just one way in which convention is ultimately, pleasingly subverted in the course of the film.

            Which brings us to the subject of Kaufman-Jonze-Gondry. Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay for Eternal Sunshine, also wrote Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, both of which were directed by Spike Jonze. These three movies constitute a mini-genre themselves --- call it the Fun Maze Film.

            The Fun Maze Films are noteworthy for combining flashy visual games with stories that shuffle the characters through clever reality pretzels. They flip through time and place with abandon. Characters often travel through a mad dream world. Physical space is like a Chinese box whose parts rotate and twist.

            Kaufman also scripted a film directed by Michel Gondry called Human Nature. It did not fit the mold, nor did it come off nearly as well as the Jonze films. Yet, it did not seem as emptily clever as those.

            Adaptation made a pass at spoofing genre convention with its controversial last act. But it pulled punches when it should have gone over the top --- and left an intriguing film fizzling out. Malkovitch was even less, an entertaining stunt that left no emotional imprint. And Human Nature, the only other film Kaufman wrote, just kind of sucked.

            So it was with the feeling of Charlie Brown yet again rushing Lucy's football that I went to see Kaufman's latest effort. This time around, Kaufman co-wrote the story with Gondry, who also directed. A second look at Gondry's video and commercial work shows something that the previous Kaufman-Gondry collaboration did not. Gondry is obsessed with the tenets of the Fun Maze genre.

            Almost all of Gondry's work is an exploitation of dreams and nightmares from his childhood. And many of his pieces echo or replicate the Chinese box sequences in Malkovitch and the new film. He seems to have more of a personal connection to these elements than Jonze.

            Gondry's interest in dream logic gets a workout with the bulk of his sophomore outing. Clementine, sick of fighting with Joel, has him erased from her memory by a hilariously low-rent operation being run out of what looks like a dentist's office. And Joel strikes back in the same way. The procedure is sloppily conducted by two employees played by Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo (brilliantly miles away from his equally excellent work in You Can Count On Me).

            Joel, in his drugged dream state, has a change of heart and attempts to mentally thwart their efforts. Enter the Fun Maze. For a while, I thought that this would constitute the whole rest of the film, and it does wear a bit at points. But it's Joel's desire not to lose Clementine forever that gives the sequence a heart and a life. It's far more poignant than anything else Kaufman has done.

            This is not the usual Jim Carrey some of us like to avoid. One of his secrets is that he can be tolerable, and the viewer's relief can generate a lot of goodwill towards his performance and the character. Aside from an unfortunate few minutes where he has to channel his four-year-old self, he sticks to being the normal guy he can be (and not the straitlaced caricature he appears to be at the start of the film). Kate Winslet's character is self-consciously wacky in the real way that people can be, not movie-wacky. And there are surprising moments of reality all around in the way people interact.

            The film plays out beyond the clever conceit and goes deeper into the people involved, and it becomes apparent that this might even be the ultimate movie about the nature of relationships. Which is far and above what Kaufman has accomplished before.

            As Eternal Sunshine turns and twists on a Möbius-strip ride, it deposits you just about where you came in, except that everything is revealed to be not what you thought it was. But this time, all the cleverness means something.

            Finally.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (R), starring Jim Carey, Kirsten Dunst, and Kate Winslet; directed by Charlie Kaufmann. Cinemark Tinseltown, Eastview Mall, Little Theatres, Pittsford Plaza Cinema.

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