1998, R, 95 min. Directed by David Veloz. Starring Ben Stiller, Maria Bello, Elizabeth Hurley, Janeane Garofalo, Owen C. Wilson, Fred Willard, Liz Torres, Cheryl Ladd, Peter Greene.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 25, 1998
1998 is turning into Ben Stiller's year. Following his turn as this summer's king of comedy as the star of the box-office phenomenon, There's Something About Mary, Stiller has turned darkly dramatic in this season's two new outings, Neil LaBute's corrosive Your Friends & Neighbors and this graphic junkie-in-LalaLand tale, Permanent Midnight. Based on Jerry Stahl's autobiographical book, the story charts the descent of a promising writer who has recently transplanted himself to L.A. in order to get away from his drug habits in New York. Soon he confesses that the move was a “miscalculation” and that he's developed a habit “the size of Utah.” Still, he eats organically and manages to keep up with his high-paying TV job, writing for an alien puppet show called Mr. Chompers (Stahl wrote for ALF). He marries a TV executive (Hurley) who is looking for a green card, but before long she's behaving as if she were really in love with him and delighted to be having their child. The movie is a dark portrait of drug abuse, though there's remarkably little L.A. industry color in the piece. Stiller is gripping as the mainlining scribe, squirting blood on the bathroom ceiling or searching in the car's rearview mirror for a vein in his neck while his baby lies in the carseat beside him. Yet when compared to a real movie madman like Peter Greene (Pulp Fiction, Clean, Shaven), who plays Stahl's unhinged dealer, Stiller seems like a pale imitation. But more than the relentlessness of this downbeat cautionary tale, what bogs down Permanent Midnight is the artificial story structure that has three-months-clean Stahl shacked up in a hotel room with another ex-junkie named Kitty (Bello, formerly of ER). On drugs, he swears he was a stud, but now he has trouble performing, so to pass the time he tells Kitty his drug-strewn tale. This contemporary love story just gets in the way of the sordid L.A. saga and results in two, rather than one, unsatisfying storylines. David Veloz (who was one of the screenwriters of Natural Born Killers) adapted Stahl's book for the screen and makes his debut here as a director. Despite its subject matter and some humorous moments, the film lacks any real verve and punch, and brings little new to the table in the already tired new genre of junkie confession. The performances are solid and there are flashes of humor, but on the whole Permanent Midnight is in the dark.