95 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, September 18, 1998
Written & directed by David Veloz
Starring Ben Stiller, Maria Bello, Elizabeth Hurley, Janeane Garofalo, Fred Willard, Charles Fleischer & Cheryl Ladd
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 10%|
LETTERBOX: NOT NECESSARY
Funny yet cautionary tale of Hollywood heroin addict pulls no punches
"Permanent Midnight" makes no bones about its subject matter -- the drug-saturated early career of Hollywood writer Jerry Stahl.
In the opening scene we see a strung-out Ben Stiller (playing Stahl) shooting up, and it ain't pretty. There's needles and there's blood. He pumps his arms to accentuate a vein, then loads his system with heroin and collapses into a drooling, sedated state of ugly euphoria. In one scene he shoots up in his jugular for a quicker high.
But while this movie, adapted from Stahl's autobiography, is on some levels a harshly potent portrait of the slippery slope of drug dependency, it's also an ironically jocular swipe at the shadowy underbelly of Hollywood.
Stiller, in the most skilled and subtle performance of his career, narrates the now-sober Stahl's rise and fall as a sitcom writer by way of telling his story to a fellow recovering addict (Maria Bello, "ER") during a marathon motel sexual encounter.
A miserable, frustrated writer without any job prospects in New York, Stahl moved out to L.A. in the early 1980s, lured by a friend who could get him a job writing TV comedy. The show was "ALF" (thinly disguised here as "Mr. Chompers"), and along with heavy doses of stress brought on by the death of his father and the suicide of his mother (among other things), his addiction worsened with his increasing chagrin at wasting his creativity on an alien puppet sitcom.
"I had a $5,000 a week job and a $6,000 a week habit," he tells his all night date.
Writer-director David Veloz (co-writer of "Natural Born Killers") lathers "Midnight" with a sardonic, sly wit that balances perfectly with the movie's dark themes.
In a stoned night at the keyboard ("I was having to shoot six bags just to get to the typewriter," he says in voice-over), Stahl turns his father's funeral into a questionably crude "Mr. Chompers" episode. After his mother's death, he narrates, "I was sentimental after cleaning mom's blood out of the carpet, so I went to a bar."
Veloz also invites the audience inside Stahl's kaleidoscopes-and-scars mind visually, not with trippy-cam effects like so many drug movies have done to death, but with choppy edits and a jarring, drug induced sex scene.
Still, the picture turns on Stiller's portrayal of Stahl's increasingly inhuman and anesthetized intercourse with his world. It is both magnetic and distancing.
Soon after Stahl moved to L.A., he married an English producer (Elizabeth Hurley) as a favor to resolve her green card troubles. This development complicates his life further because she begins to care about him, leading to a lopsided, doomed affair -- and a child.
Stahl bottoms out in a tormenting scene where he gets uncontrollably high while babysitting his son.
The audacity shown as "Permanent Midnight" persists in treating such a grave story with humor could be misinterpreted, but because of the cunningly caustic, bleak and eventually hopeful balance struck in Veloz's direction -- and because of Stiller's droll, pathetic and sympathetic performance -- the movie strikes just the right chord.