PERMANENT MIDNIGHT, 1998
Starring: Ben Stiller, Maria Bello, Elizabeth Hurley, Owen Wilson
Fresh out of rehab, former TV writer/heroin junkie Jerry Stahl holes up in a hotel room with a mysterious woman, and recounts his struggle with drug addiction that ruined his writing career in Hollywood and nearly cost him his life.
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It’s a little strange to think of Ben Stiller as a desperate, strung out heroin junkie crawling through the seedy streets of L.A. looking for a fix, but what do you know? Here he is.
Stiller plays Jerry Stahl, a real-life former TV writer/heroin junkie upon whose autobiography the film is based. It’s an interesting, perhaps unconventional choice to cast Stiller in the lead role, but he fits the overall tone of the film, and he commands an impressive performance in what is ultimately a well-made, sincere telling of a deeply personal story. So if you were disappointed with Night at the Museum, this should makeup for it.
The film starts with Stahl working at a fast food joint as part of the penance of his rehabilitation program. There he meets an eccentric woman, Kitty, who plucks Jerry from work so they can go grab a cup of coffee, which is to say, have impersonal hotel sex.
There Kitty reveals she too is a recovering addict, and Jerry decides to confide in her the story of his years in Hollywood balancing a demanding writing career with a massive heroin addiction, like some kind of deviant version of an independent career-woman in a nineties TV drama (think “Ally McBeal” meets Trainspotting).
Jeff begins his story with his move from New York to live in Los Angeles with his drug buddy Nicky (Owen Wilson. And you know what? This makes up for Starsky and Hutch too), whose hospitality extends to sharing his non-descript pills with Jerry. Jerry’s first big career move comes when Nicky talks him into a green card marriage to another friend, Sandra (Elizabeth Hurley), who happens to be an executive at a TV network. WithJerry’s strong background in writing fiction and no future job prospects, Sandra manages to finagle a writing gig for Jerry working on an alien puppet sitcom called “Mr. Chompers,” in perhaps the most transparent fictionalization of a real creative property ever (no, not “Sesame Street”).
Jerry manages to squeeze out a string of episodes for the show with all the strain of drawing blood from a stone, countering his deepening selfloathing with a seemingly endless supply of Nicky’s pills to pop (and it’s always just “pills” isn’t it? They never say specifically what pills I’m supposed to ask for).
The sudden suicide of his mother one day leaves Jerry reeling in depression, and he soon graduates from pills, to heroin, thanks largely to a one-night stand with beautiful, married German woman who enjoys chasing a night of adultery with a shot in the arm (arguably the best possible way to become addicted to heroin).
As Jerry does his best to survive in the professional world, we watch his desire for dope become more and more frequent until he’s shooting up every time he goes to the bathroom, and he’s going to the bathroom more often than my grandpa Ron (who throwsup a lot because of the chemo). Meanwhile he maintains a lifestyle of religiously healthful eating and rigorous exercise, evidently in an attempt to live his life as ironically as possible. He walks through life in a state of stressful contradiction; scenes alternate between Jerry in a job interview or meeting with an agent, and Jerry locked inside a bathroom, sweating profusely and sticking himself with a needle over and over again trying to find a vein. It stands in stark contrast to other movies depicting drug addiction which are always eager to convey drug trips by employing fisheye lenses, lighting gagsand babies turning their heads around 360 degrees on the ceiling. Instead, this film relies on Stiller and his co-stars to wear their desperation and regret on their sleeves, delivering a sobering, sickening shock. This film elects to deliver a simple, realistic reconstruction of the events of Stahl’s addiction with sincere frankness characteristic of the narrative.
Really, it tops Zoolander.
Throughout all of this, Stahl’s constant narration of the events reveals a blasé, unsentimental viewpoint about everything he went through. He remarks frequently on the vapidity and shallow nature of Los Angeles, and his drug habits become not so much aform of recreation as a means of coping with the stifling social swamp that is Hollywood.
Ultimately, that’s the big joke of the movie, that any truly intelligent person could only ever handle Hollywood if they were more stoned than an adulterer in ancient Mesopatamia, which, if you’re not familiar with ancient Mesopatamian legal codes, was“very stoned.” And as a bonus to us, the audience, it finally answers the age-old question of how sitcom writers can stand to do what they do all day (I’m looking at you, “Two anda Half Men”).
Amazingly despite all the darkness in this film, or perhaps because of it, Permanent Midnight delivers a fair share of laughs alongside the gasps, as well as other forms ofbreathing. It’s refreshing to hear someone who can make light of their battle with addiction; of his post-rehab talk show tour promoting his autobiography, Stahl remarks, “’What’s the worst thing heroin drove [me] to do?...Showing up on Maury’.” True, this movie is probably as disturbing as it is entertaining, but the author’s voice and the director’s hand tell a story that’s ultimately satisfying and inspiring. Because if that guycan make it as a writer with a massive drug addiction, then so can I!