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