Review: ‘Permanent Midnight’

Ben Stiller goes from accident-prone nitwit in "There's Something About Mary" and amoral actor-director in "Your Friends and Neighbors" to angst-ridden junkie in "Permanent Midnight," based on TV scribe Jerry Stahl's tell-all about taking Hollywood meetings on a $6,000-a-week heroin habit.

Ben Stiller goes from accident-prone nitwit in “There’s Something About Mary” and amoral actor-director in “Your Friends and Neighbors” to angst-ridden junkie in “Permanent Midnight,” based on TV scribe Jerry Stahl’s tell-all about taking Hollywood meetings on a $6,000-a-week heroin habit. But Stiller’s attempted image makeover, though admirable, doesn’t make it. His perform-ance is strictly from the clenched-teeth, “Look at me, I’m acting!” school. B.O. prospects look as gloomy as subject matter.

Essentially a dark-comedy fusing of “Leaving Las Vegas” and deadpan shtick, pic opens with Stahl just out of detox and raring to share his story with whoever’s handy. Fellow urban casualty Kitty (Maria Bello) fits the bill, and, during a marathon motel tryst, Stahl supplies the gory details, which include script meetings on smack and desperate drug runs with infant daughter in tow.

Though Stiller, sporting a perpetual 5 o’clock shadow, takes some real chances here, it’s hard to empathize. Unlike prototypical writer-addicts played by actors from Jack Lemmon to Nicolas Cage, his Stahl lacks any shred of salvageable charm. He goes from brooding and contemptuous to brooding and hangdog, the clear winner in this month’s August Strindberg Sweepstakes.

To test his acting chops more than he ever has before onscreen, Stiller has taken a role that involves adult language, hot-and-heavy sex and graphic mainlining in whatever toilet stall is empty. But scripter David Veloz, here making his directorial debut, would have served his star better by asking for less rather than more. Stiller’s performance and Veloz’s attempt at inside Hollywood expose (with dated jabs at health food and self-help trends) add up to exactly the kind of affliction-of-the-week babble the talented Stahl rails against in his bestselling memoir.

Especially annoying is Veloz’s dependence on multiple dissolves to pound home a point. One such sledgehammer moment finds Stahl on the phone with his mother, who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. Whatever guilt lingers is taken to a whole new level when the prodigal son visits the blood-soaked scene of Mom’s suicide.

Besides Bello, who does well enough with her thankless “And then what happened?” role, Elizabeth Hurley and Lourdes Benedicto play the women in Stahl’s life. Hurley is the Brit wife who first uses Stahl (for her “green card situation”) and then falls for him; Benedicto is the power agent whose representation comes with ulterior motives. Hurley’s character’s interest in Stahl never adds up; Benedicto’s Vola is a sad grotesque of the creative community’s feelings about parasitic reps.

Owen Wilson and Peter Greene, as Stahl’s druggie pals, fare much better. Wilson lightens things up considerably with his mumbled, stream-of-consciousness inanities, and Greene, as Gus, does more with his signature nastiness than ever before. The sequence in which Gus and Stahl freebase in an office building and then, like kids in a mosh pit, repeatedly throw themselves against the shatter-proof window is a definite highlight, at once harrowing and exhilarating.

Fred Willard and Charles Fleischer appear, respectively, as a dimwit sitcom exec and star puppeteer on a pretentious kiddie show called “Mr. Chompers” (an obvious reference to primetime’s “ALF”). Author Stahl himself does a cameo as a tough-love methadone clinic doc.

Tech credits range from OK to slightly above. In spots (like the office-building high), the editing is brilliant; elsewhere, it’s tentative and sluggish, betraying a project in search of the right tone. Daniel Licht’s music is techno-pop catchy, and the soundtrack (which includes the Prodigy hit “Smack My Bitch Up”) has strong marketing potential.

Permanent Midnight

Production

An Artisan Entertainment Release of a JD Prods. production. Produced by Jane Hamsher, Don Murphy. Executive producer, Yalda Yehranian. Co-producer, Robert Leveen. Directed, written by David Veloz, based on the book by Jerry Stahl.

With

Jerry Stahl - Ben Stiller Sandra - Elizabeth Hurley Kitty - Maria Bello Nicky - Owen Wilson Vola - Lourdes Benedicto Gus - Peter Greene Pamela Verlaine - Cheryl Ladd Craig Ziffer - Fred Willard Allen from "Mr. Chompers" - Charles Fleischer Jana - Janeane Garofalo Dr. Murphy - Jerry Stahl
Camera (Deluxe color), Robert Yeoman; editors, Steven Weisberg, Cara Silverman; music, Daniel Licht; music supervisor, Jeff Rabhan; production designer, Jerry Fleming; costume designers, Louise Mingenbach, Lori Eskowitz; sound (Dolby), Eric Enroth; casting, Ronnie Yeskel, Richard Hicks. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 11, 1998. Running time: 85 MIN.

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