The battle of making Permanent Midnight may have been half over when Ben Stiller was cast in the lead role. The material is that difficult to film adequately, and I think Stiller is that good. For the first half hour or so, writer/director David Veloz (one of the screenwriters credited on Natural Born Killers) strains unsuccessfully to impress us with fashionable non-continuity edits and some clipped dialogue that aspires to be taken as sardonic humor. I was ready to check out when Stiller’s performance grabbed hold.
Stiller is portraying Jerry Stahl, ex-screenwriter, ex-junkie, whose Permanent Midnight was a bestselling memoir in book form. (Stahl wrote the somber porn landmark Café Flesh before turning to scriptwriting for such TV programs as Alf, Moonlighting, and Thirtysomething.) In the film, Stahl’s tale is structured, appropriately, as one long, harrowing flashback, complete with rueful perspective and hacking-cough wit via Stiller’s voiceover. As the movie begins, he’s just a couple of months out of rehab, with a job serving up mass-produced sandwiches in some godawful fast food joint. As fate (luck?) would have it, one of the drive-up customers is a disheveled, vaguely sad-looking but gorgeous blonde (Maria Bello) who pegs Stiller as an ex-junkie (she’d know, because she’s been there) and invites him to ditch the night shift and come “have coffee” with her. Cut to: the two of them in bed together in some nondescript motel room, Stiller trying gamely — but failing — to satisfy her. “When I’m on smack, I’m a stud,” he says in his own defense. As the hours stretch out, the failed lovemaking session gives way to confessional conversation, and Stahl winds up pouring his heart out to the woman.
Now, I haven’t read Stahl’s book, so I don’t know for sure whether he claims that this actually happened. It recalls the similarly implausible love affair between Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas, another fairy tale about seeing the best in someone. And it’s obviously a shamelessly manipulative narrative device. Veloz hopes that, by showing us a cute chick who falls in love with Stahl as he tells his tale of woe, we’ll be nudged to follow suit. (Bello is solid in this fanciful role, which is no mean feat.) I’ll admit it — I wound up finding both Stiller and Bello almost heartbreakingly charming, and let myself be taken along for the ride.
They’re supported by an array of good character-based performances. As a manic dealer, Peter Greene, unforgettable in Clean, Shaven, is the devil whispering in Stahl’s ear. In one of the film’s best scenes, he takes Stahl to a top floor in an empty skyscraper, where the two of them get high and throw themselves repeatedly against the shatterproof plate-glass windows. The scene effectively conveys the king-of-the-world high of a solid drug rush, and the film has just enough of an edge that I winced each time they hit the glass, convinced that one of them would take that big fall into the canyons of L.A. Elizabeth Hurley, meanwhile, is very pretty and sports a lovely English accent but seems to have been airlifted in from an entirely different movie. (She plays a Brit who marries Stahl as a ploy to get her green card.) Janeane Garofalo and Cheryl Ladd are both fine in small roles.
The main problem is that, at least on film, Stahl’s story is as straightforward and inevitable as any L.A.-based spiral into decadence. Kid moves to L.A., breaks into showbiz with a $5,000-a-week job writing for TV that can’t cover his $6,000-a-week drug habit. There’s no good reason to care — except that Stiller shines a flashlight into those dark corners and manages to illuminate a little bit of what it must feel like to pretend you’re not destroying your body, your career, and your life in search of another perfect high that will never come. He eventually starts looking pretty ghoulish, unlike the pretty boys from the vastly entertaining Trainspotting, for example. Stiller actually plays Stahl as a bitter guy, something of a spoiled L.A. brat who wants success without the discipline required of a writer. In a nice touch, Stahl himself shows up as the doc in a revolving-door methadone clinic who basically tells the Stahl character what a loser he is. That slate-grey sense of humor helps save Permanent Midnight from banality.
Written and directed by David Veloz
from the autobiography by Jerry Stahl
Cinematography by Robert D. Yeoman
Edited by Cara Silverman and Steven Weisberg
Starring Ben Stiller, Maria Bello, Elizabeth Hurley, and Peter Greene
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1