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Permanent Midnight

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 18 September 1998

  Directed and Written by David Veloz.

Starring Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Hurley,
Maria Bello, Owen Wilson,
Lourdes Benedicto, Peter Greene, Cheryl Ladd,
Fred Willard, and Janeane Garafalo.

Comedian Ben Stiller won’t leave you laughing in this cautionary and graphic tale of over-excess and self-indulgence. He’s Jerry Stahl, a successful, pill popping East Coast author turned popular, junkie Hollywood television writer lost in a city notorious for over-indulgence and hence without a safety net. He’s just a guy who can’t say no after moving west to escape his chemical dependency, but ruefully tells himself "I miscalculated" after finding scuzzy and aggressive dealers seemingly as plentiful as Starbucks coffee shops. This debut feature from writer-director David Veloz, based on a 1995 autobiography, starkly retells Stahl’s rise and fall in LA-LA-land over the course of a multi-day shack-up with ex-addict Kitty (E.R.’s Maria Bello), a sucker for rehab patients who coaxes him away from a dead-end job (in, appropriately, Phoenix) in favor of sex (initially as frigid as the frozen chicken he was hacking at only hours earlier at his fast-food outpost) and conversation. Jerry cleanses his soul to this pretty stranger in a series of monologues, told as long flashbacks, detailing his dark and nearly deadly experience.

It’s horrifying (and R-rated) if not utterly relentless; it sucks your breath away, perhaps too much. Yet it’s still not quite Oscar-winning caliber (but still worthy of a nomination), and Stiller’s playing against type doesn’t come off as honest a performance as, say, Michael Keaton, in Clean and Sober (1988), that comic’s first dramatic role. Oddly enough, that film was directed by Glenn Gordon Caron, creator of television’s Moonlighting, one of the shows Stahl was associated with during his period of abuse. Permanent Midnight deglorifies drug addiction on a more linear level than Trainspotting (1996), but not nearly as well as Otto Preminger’s then-powerful and still memorable The Man with the Golden Arm (1955).

Stiller’s arrogant comedian shtick obviously plays a big part in his portrayal here. Just take out the comedy, toss in a ton of angst and talent (that’s already there, actually), and pepper the audience with Stahl’s vain efforts to kick when not zooming in close (courtesy of Robert D. Yeoman’s cinematography) on Stahl’s vein shots. One particularly gruesome moment has Stahl slapping his neck to pop out a vein then jabbing the needle so deep you think it’s going to come out the other side. Ugh.

Elizabeth Hurley portrays Sandra, a beautiful Englishwoman groveling (drug free) for her own position as a high-powered TV executive. She and Stahl wed in a marriage of convenience -- her for a Green Card, he for some money for his next fix. She tries to clean up his act, lands him a job writing for Mr. Chompers, an alien puppet that anyone familiar with late 1980s television would immediately recognize as Alf. The show’s producer (Fred Willard) goes ga-ga over Jerry’s slant on a cemetery scene, a nightmarish vision of the author’s obsession with his father’s suicide. When Stahl’s mother takes a similar escape from this world, it plunges a dramatic stake into Jerry’s heroin-heavy heart.

Fired from one job after another, a sympathetic sitcom star, Pamela Verlaine (Cheryl Ladd) gives him a final chance, but his writing days are numbered. At an big wig party at Sandra’s he freaks out when a hallucinatory Mr. Chompers comes banging at his door, then he misses the birth of his daughter (guess the marriage was a little more than convenient) because he’s shooting up in a bathroom. Later, while caring for the newborn (geez, Sandra, even a perfect stranger would be a better choice to watch the girl than you know who), he neglects the child while driving about in search of a fix.

At this point, the flashbacks end and the present takes over. His act and body cleaned up, Jerry returns to LA, Kitty follows (briefly) and all seems well in the world (hey, if it didn’t work out this way, would he have written the damn book?), although he gets some smarmy barbs from various film-ending appearances on Tom Snyder and other talk shows, whereupon he comments that "the worst thing heroin ever drove me to do was Maury." Finally, a joke!

Stiller tackles his tough physical role with an incredible intensity and Veloz surrounds the character with a inflexible parade of fascinating, albeit face-turning, images. This is not a film that one decides to see on a whim. An admirable effort, and one that distributor Artisan Entertainment needs to handle with kid gloves. God bless.

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