Over/Under: ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ vs. ‘Love Liza’

Over Under: A New Perspective on Films New and OldAs 2011 crawls to a close and 2012 peeks its head over the horizon, many of us wayward souls find ourselves using the changing of the calendar as an excuse to make big changes in our lives and start over fresh. ‘Tis the season for resolutions. Some of us will resolve to cease destructive behaviors, others will vow to start new things that will enrich us and make us better people. But for each the goal is clear – we’re done with the past, finished with who we were, and starting from this moment forward, it’s going to be a new day. Naturally, all of this thought about what my resolutions are going to be and who I want to be in 2012 has me thinking about movies that I’ve seen where people are trying to let go of the past and begin a new journey.

More specifically, I’ve closed in on two movies from the early part of the last decade that are about relationships ending and their messy aftermaths. The Michel Gondry-directed and Charlie Kaufman-penned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about a fictional service that will erase bad relationships from people’s memories, it stars Jim Carrey as a man wrestling with the question of how to best deal with painful memories, either by blocking them out or by accepting and processing them. Two years before that, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in a movie called Love Liza about a broken man dealing with a relationship that had suddenly ended due to his wife’s suicide. Both films feature protagonists that have been forced to move on from the past to start life over as something new.

What do they have in common?

As I hinted at already, both of these films are about men who have had the most important relationships in their lives ripped away from them suddenly. Despite the fact that they may not be comfortable with change, they find themselves standing at the precipice of the unknown, trying to process what has happened to them and who they are now. Initially both Carrey’s character and Hoffman’s try to kill their past, Carrey through the means of science fiction and Hoffman through the process of huffing gasoline. Then, once they find their memories starting to fade, both experience a moment of panic where they struggle to preserve what they’ve lost. For Carrey, it’s a mad dash through his subconscious and for Hoffman, a search for the pictures of his wife and the suicide note that have been stolen from his house. The differences between the two films only come at the end. When all of the pain and strife is over, where do you go next? The answer appears to be different for each man.

Why is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind overrated?

The main problem I have with this movie, the big stumbling block that kind of ruins everything else that comes after, is that I don’t buy the relationship between Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet’s characters. They just don’t have any chemistry on screen and they get immediately drawn together for seemingly no reason in a forced pairing that happens solely because the script needs them to be opposites, and it needs them to be in a failed relationship. We get so much clunky dialogue to establish Carrey as the nervous anal character and Winslet as the irresponsible free spirit, and we watch them as their disparate natures chafe against each other constantly, but we’re never given any indication of why they would work together. It’s kind of hard to get invested in the dissolution of a relationship between two crazy characters who seem better off without each other.

Winslet’s performance in this one doesn’t do much for me either. It seems like every other scene exists just to portray her as a flighty train wreck, but I never buy that she’s so out of control. Some hair dye and mismatched clothing isn’t enough to pull off the quirky dream girl character. There needs to be some manic energy exuding from the actress, and from Winslet all I was getting was forced quirk. At every moment I was aware that she was performing. She does okay during the dramatic moments where she can reach back into her usual bag of tricks, but in the scenes where I was supposed to be falling for her charms, I just wasn’t buying it.

The other big issue that keeps me from giving this one the high marks that everyone else seems to is Gondry’s obtrusive directing style. His style is distinctive, but it hits like a sledgehammer. Every moment he uses one of his flourishes I find myself taken out of the film, because I can feel him inserting his crafting. And he goes a bit far visually recreating Carrey’s confused, disjointed mental state with frantic editing. It leaves us trying to follow a confused, disjointed narrative that trucks along too fast. You’re never allowed to sit in a moment long enough to let what’s happening sink in; it’s always constant confusion and go, go, go. Admittedly, this is a movie that gets better as it goes on, and I liked it better on a second viewing, after I was prepared to be so left out in the cold when it comes to the Carrey and Winslet characters, but I still don’t understand where its longevity and praise comes from.

Why is Love Liza underpraised?

This is a movie that contains so much random weirdness that there’s a strong possibility it could alienate and confuse its audience. But it works, and largely because it’s always able to maintain a consistent tone. Plus, it has the ongoing mystery of what Hoffman’s wife’s suicide letter says and how it’s going to effect him when he reads it tying all of the twists and turns the story takes together. Some movies like this, that try to blend black comedy with legitimate melancholy, and that seem to change genres on a dime, they end up a muddled mess that the viewer has a hard time knowing how to react to. But as I watched Love Liza I found myself delighting in all of the strange developments.

What starts off as a film about death and mourning moves suddenly to a tale of addiction, and then morphs again in to a strange buddy comedy about radio control toy enthusiasts. What’s happening is that Hoffman is searching for something to fill the hole that his wife’s death has left in his life; he’s lost and without a plan, he doesn’t know what to do, and we’re stuck experiencing it all right alongside him, stranded amongst all of his awkward interactions. Unwilling to accept any options that might lead to him moving on and forgetting his wife, he starts huffing gasoline in an effort to destroy himself and escape from his own body and mind. Does that sound too ridiculous to work? It’s not, and it all works for pretty much one reason: Philip Seymour Hoffman.

His performance in this movie is exhilarating. What we have is a small scale character study, so the spotlight is pretty squarely aimed at Hoffman’s face, and he absolutely kills it. Whether he’s glassy eyed and withdrawn because of huffing gas, or he’s flipping out into fits of rage and grief, or he’s doing absurd buddy comedy alongside the delightfully weird Jack Kehler (you know, The Dude’s landlord from The Big Lebowski), he’s totally believable and powerfully magnetic. Throw in a strong supporting turn from Kathy Bates and a handful of appearances by character actor legend Stephen Tobolowsky, and I don’t understand how this could be a film that has faded into relative obscurity.

Evening the odds.

Eternal Sunshine leaves us with Carrey and Winslet aware of everything that has happened to them and committed to making the same mistakes all over again, no matter how much pain it brings them. Love Liza takes the opposite approach. Hoffman is left without anything, even the shirt on his back, and in a situation where he is being forced to cast everything that hasn’t worked for him in the past aside and move on to something new. As we approach the upcoming new year, I hope that I can use this film as my inspiration to boldly walk into new, undiscovered territory, and not fall back into making all of the same old mistakes just because I can take comfort in knowing how they play out. Rather than clinging to the past and allowing it to destroy us, it’s time to make a clean break and start over. Even if that often involves getting out of the movie theater and putting on a pair of jogging shoes.

Weaned on the genre films of the 80s. Reared by the independent movement of the 90s. Earned a BA for writing stuff in the 00s. Reviews current releases at templeofreviews.com

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