'Eternal Sunshine' is a rocket-ship ride to highs and lows of love

You know how sometimes you have the kind of blurry off-center dream in which you keep turning up in a different place, wondering how you got there and who all those other odd-looking people are? "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is like one of those dreams, except it's less linear (if that's possible) and will stay with you longer.

From the imaginative keyboard of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation," "Being John Malkovich") and the fertile vision of director Michel Gondry (who previously collaborated with Kaufman on "Human Nature"), "Eternal Sunshine" is many things — a comedy, a drama, a wild flight of fancy, an actor's showcase, a gritty examination of memory. What it isn't is a Jim Carrey movie, which is a tad unfortunate as Carrey plays the lead. He's not bad at all — in fact, it's the most honest, vulnerable work he's ever done — but those arriving at this movie hoping for a few "Bruce Almighty" antics will be sorely disappointed.

Kaufman, one of the few truly creative screenwriters working today, rarely writes in a straight line. Instead, his screenplays curve and swoop like roller coasters, taking us somewhere we haven't been before, then looping back where we began, then off on another path, and back again, on a path that might be the same but looks different. His knockout debut, "Being John Malkovich," was like a jolt of caffeine; a truly fresh black comedy in which a nebbishy clerk found a portal into the brain of actor John Malkovich. Since then, in "Human Nature," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and most of all "Adaptation," he's taken audiences on roundabout pleasure trips, finding inspiration in the dark mazes of the mind.

If "Eternal Sunshine," his fifth screenplay, feels just a bit like déjà vu (only to those already familiar with Kaufman's work, mind you), perhaps that's because the bar is set so high — and because he's working in territory that he's touched on before. But in some ways, it's his most ambitious work to date, combining the puzzle-box structure of a "Memento" with the mind games of "Malkovich," and letting a troupe of fine actors run free with it. (Except Carrey, who Gondry wisely keeps closely restrained.)

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," with Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson. Directed by Michel Gondry, from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. 108 minutes. Rated R for language, some drug and sexual content. Several theaters.

Though it's best to go into a movie like this with as little previous information as possible (read on at your own risk), I'll dish out a few tidbits: It has to do with the aftermath of love, and with a clever invention that can remove memories — for better and for ill. Carrey is Joel, a rumpled everyman; Kate Winslet brings a spacey forthrightness to bookstore clerk Clementine, who changes her hair color almost as often as she changes her mind. (Watch the hair color. That's a hint. OK, no more.)

Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson and especially Kirsten Dunst are effective in supporting roles. And Gondry, whose background is in videos, makes it all a melancholy fun house, with camera work and visual tricks that rival the screenplay in invention (watch for a tiny Carrey, under a table).

"Eternal Sunshine" — the title comes from an Alexander Pope poem — isn't for those looking for an easy popcorn movie; I'd like to watch it again soon, to sort out a few more of the twists. It's a scruffy, blurry puzzle to put together, and well worth the effort — just be sure to clear a tabletop for it in your mind.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com