Permanent Midnight

          1998 will go down as the summer of Ben Stiller. Not only did he remind
  audiences of his comic abilities in
There's Something About Mary but he
  showed his dramatic chops in his supporting turn as a weaselly drama teacher
  in Neil LaBute's
Your Friends and Neighbors. Building on the latter, Stiller
  further stretched as a dramatic actor by portraying real-life television writer
  and drug addict Jerry Stahl in the film version of Stahl's memoir,
. Structured as a series of flashbacks, stories Stahl is relating to a
  fellow recovering addict who has picked him up at his job, the film is a brutally
  honest look at drug addiction and its repercussions. Films about drug addicts
  are anything new, but they do provide extremely meaty roles for the actors        
  involved. Recall Frank Sinatra in
The Man With the Golden Arm or Jason
  Patric in
Rush or Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting to name but a few. Stiller
  tears into the role of Stahl, showing the desperation and the willingness
  to debase himself to any level for a fix.

          Screenwriter-director David Veloz took this anecdotal story and retained
   that format. Stahl meets Kitty (the lovely Maria Bello from TV's
ER) and the
  pair go to a hotel room where during and after lovemaking, Stahl tells her
  his story. This device might have become monotonous but Veloz skillfully
  manages to avoid any clichés or pitfalls and keeps it fresh. It helps that the
  story is engrossing and involving, filled with moments of humor and tragedy.
  The audience is sucked into this man's tale of heading to L.A. to avoid drugs
  and finding himself sucked deeper into using them. Along the way, he steals
  from friends, marries an attractive British woman to allow her a green card,
  gets a job as a comedy writer on a TV comedy (here called
Mr. Chompers but
  clearly the NBC sitcom
ALF), moves on to an hour-long show with a star who
  can spot a user (Cheryl Ladd channeling Cybill Shepard — Stahl was on the
  writing staff of
Moonlighting), fathers a child with his wife and watches as
  his world falls apart. The through-line to the story is his addiction and Veloz,
  with the help of cinematographer Robert Yeoman (who also shot
), does not shy away from the gruesome details. There are close-ups
  of Stahl shooting up that are painful and difficult to watch, yet they are
  necessary to demonstrate the reality of Stahl's situation.

          The film is filled with fine, incisive acting with one notable exception.
  Elizabeth Hurley looks gorgeous as Stahl's wife but she does little with the
  role. In nearly every scene, she acts with her arms crossed and when her
  character is supposed to become angry and fed up with Stahl, Hurley tosses
  a minor tantrum, more like she's found a broken nail than that she has been
  hurt and betrayed by her man. (If she were a Method actress, one would think
  she'd merely have to think of her off-screen significant other and really let
  loose). But mercifully her scenes are relatively few. On the plus side are Owen
  Wilson (as Stahl's druggie friend who arranges the marriage), Fred Willard (as
  one of the producers of
Mr. Chompers), Peter Greene (whose own off-screen
  drug addiction informs his turn as a junkie dealer), Liz Torres (as a fellow user)
  and Janeane Garofalo (in a rare dramatic turn as an agent who represents Stahl).

          The heart of the film, however, is Stiller and he has never been better.
  Oftentimes in his career, this actor has downplayed his good looks, yet his
  handsomeness partly informs his characterization of Stahl: one of the reasons
  Stahl can get away with as much as he does is his charm and attractiveness.
  Stiller also captures the desperation of a man chasing his next fix and his
  harrowing descent into a hell of his own making is chilling. The actor even
  makes the character's obsession with health palatable. Despite his addiction,
  Stahl jogs five miles a day and will only eat organically-grown foods.
Permanent Midnight also marks Veloz's debut as a director. He is clearly
  a talent to watch as this an assured and accomplished first film.

Rating:                B
MPAA Rating:        R for pervasive graphic drug use,
                                                            strong sexuality and language
Running time:      88 mins.
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.