20 Years Later, Watching This Quirky Rom-Com Feels Like Coded Couples Therapy


Earlier this year, Ariana Grande announced her latest album after teasing it through social media posts, including one with coordinates that led to — of all places — Montauk. This Long Island location wasn’t so random, especially once fans discovered that the title of her album, “Eternal Sunshine,” was inspired by one of her favorite movies.

Twenty years after its release on March 19, 2004, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind remains a quirky fave for many, including the chart-topping pop singer who was a mere 9 years old when the movie first hit theaters. It’s a film that isn’t married to a single genre, combining sci-fi elements into a romantic comedy that’s hardly romantic and funny in a morbid way.

There are many layers to understanding Eternal Sunshine, equally thought-provoking and confusing for first-time viewers. Rewatching it decades later shows there’s more to this disjointed love story than we initially realized, and its lofty themes were actually much more personal. It’s something many of us have gone through or are going through, and gives us the answer to this problem without deleting parts of our brains to find them.

What’s Eternal Sunshine about?

Joel Barrish (Jim Carrey) is struggling to get over his painful breakup with Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), unable to find closure after the tumultuous relationship ended. After discovering Clementine erased all memories of him through an unusual pseudo-medical procedure done at Lacuna Inc., Joel decides to do the same. Midway through the process, Joel has regrets and fights to keep those memories intact with the help of his imagination’s version of Clementine to guide him.

Meanwhile, Clementine’s new boyfriend (an assistant at this facility, played by Elijah Wood) uses Joel’s keepsakes to force a connection with his paramour. This unethical seduction backfires, triggering Clementine’s memories of Joel.

The two star-crossed and disconnected lovers eventually find their way back to each other by reliving their earliest shared memory, but ultimately discover the truth of their mutual erasure. Instead of retreating, Joel and Clementine reconcile and decide to try their relationship again — for the first time.

“I’m fine without you.”

The original ending for Eternal Sunshine was more morose than what we saw in the final version, as Carrey explained in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2019: “We don’t end up together in Charlie’s version. I walk away.”

While that depressing ending fits the tone of the original script, it would have reduced the movie’s message. Eternal Sunshine isn’t just a movie about memory and nostalgia but also about what we do with those sentiments, good or bad.

The way a person perceives their partner is an integral factor in whether couples stay together or drift apart into misery. Often, in romantic relationships, people focus on the negative aspects of their partner more than the positive. It can be used as a defense mechanism to protect a person from feeling vulnerable, or for one person to feel superior over the other by highlighting their partner’s flaws instead of their own.

This negativity bias can cause a spiraling effect, contagious to the point where everyone starts to only see the downsides and critiques more than the affection. The way to climb out of this hole is not by cutting off the memories like a gangrene limb but by confronting them.

When Clementine and Joel hear the cassettes of their sessions ahead of the erasing procedures, they’re shocked to find out how much resentment they felt towards each other. Joel’s friends reinforce those unpleasant feelings by saying how “impulsive” Clementine is — even though Joel says he loves that about her. On the opposite end, Clementine thinks Joel is boring, but she knows that Joel admires her eccentricities because it makes him feel less guarded about himself.

Clementine resents Joel for being such a closed book, while Joel rebukes her desire for openness by saying, “Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.” And that is the turning point for understanding Eternal Sunshine.

NBC Universal/Focus Features

Everybody’s gotta learn sometime.

All of the negative thoughts Joel and Clementine had for each other were weaponized by the couple and never worked through. That’s why both resorted to having their memories of each other’s existence wiped out. They internalized these harsh feelings, and neither knew how to work through them with each other.

Only at the end, when they listen to each other’s tapes and hear their deeper perceptions of each other, do they truly communicate and realize they can make this relationship work. The mutual repetition of the word “OK” in the closing moments of the film isn’t a complacent sign of falling into old habits — it’s an affirmation echoed by their partner to show that they’re finally listening to what the other is saying, and they’ll do the work to create a different outcome.

Eternal Sunshine isn’t a toxic love story about a vicious cycle between two mismatched individuals. The film is about finding hope in the hopeless, but only for those willing to take the steps towards fixing problems instead of running from them.

It won’t be easy, but Joel and Clementine seem committed to breaking the negativity loop by not turtling into themselves when the tough times come. There are a lot of bitter pills for this couple to swallow, but they’re ready to take their lumps, press on, and change their hearts.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is streaming on Peacock and on-demand from Amazon and other online distributors.



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