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An Addict's Life, Pithy and Pitiful

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 1998

  Movie Critic

Permanent Midnight
Ben Stiller, with Elizabeth Hurley, revealing surprising depth as a witty but tormented man. (Artisan Entertainment)

Dave Veloz
Ben Stiller;
Elizabeth Hurley;
Maria Bello;
Janeane Garofalo;
Owen Wilson
Running Time:
1 hour, 35 minutes
Contains drug use, sex and profanity
Call it "There's Something About Heroin."

In "Permanent Midnight," the unsettling and – yes – often scorchingly funny film based on the memoir by TV scriptwriter and former junkie Jerry Stahl, Ben Stiller takes his lovable schlemiel shtick (or, as in the case of "Your Friends and Neighbors," his despicable schlemiel shtick) to another level entirely.

As Stahl, Stiller turns in what could easily be the finest performance of a career that, up to now, was devoted mostly to playing an interesting but lightweight assortment of dweebs. Over the harrowing course of "Midnight," the character of Jerry devolves from a naif fresh off the plane in Hollywood (where, in what he calls a "miscalculation," he has fled to escape the drug culture of Manhattan) to a pitiful addict reduced to injecting smack into his neck when he can't find a clean vein in his needle-pocked arms – all the while ignoring the infant daughter who sits mewling next to him in a dirty diaper.

That blood-curdling little tableau proves a haunting vision to rival any of this summer's on-screen shocks, including, in a small way, even the battlefield gore of "Saving Private Ryan."

It may seem ludicrously hyperbolic to mention "Oscar" and "Ben Stiller" in the same breath, but this arresting performance, which lurches from buzzing mania to nodding stupor, from glib lies to tongue-tied inarticulateness, is a breakthrough for the talented actor.

Another apparent oxymoron is the abundant black humor with which writer-director David Veloz has larded this serious film about one man's sojourn in hell. Structured as a series of alternately comic and horrific flashbacks, the film is narrated by Jerry as he lies in the bed of a cheap motel with Kitty (Maria Bello), a former addict who picks him up while he is doing a post-rehab stint as a clerk in the drive-through window of a Phoenix fast-food joint.

In wry voice-over, the aspiring writer traces his sordid saga from his arrival in L.A., clad in an incongruous black leather suit; through his initial forays with pot and Percocet, courtesy of his old friend Nicky (Owen Wilson); through the fluke that lands him a $5,000-per-week gig penning scripts for the "ALF"-like "Mr. Chompers" television show; through his sham marriage to Sandra (Elizabeth Hurley), a British producer in need of a green card; to his sexual tryst with a Teutonic she-wolf named Dagmar (Connie Nielsen), who turns him on to smack while crowing, "I'm [making love with] a Jew!"

Spiraling through further self-inflicted debasement, Jerry continues to drop sarcastic bons mots, such as a crack about cribbing "plot lines and character names" from German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Such buoyant flippancy, however, is a script device that is meant less to keep the foundering character's head above water than it is to keep the audience from drowning in the debauchery, which at times threatens to overwhelm the viewer, as did the depressing alcohol-abuse film "Barfly."

It's a gamble that works, thanks in large part to Veloz's unpreachy tone and his tacit acknowledgment that drugs promise both thrill and terror, both allure and scourge.

There are some unsatisfying aspects of "Midnight," chiefly the thinly explored relationships with Jerry's friends and family, made all the more frustrating in light of the rich characterizations that supporting cast members bring to their roles.

It's never very clear how Jerry's marriage to Sandra, undertaken for the less-than-princely sum of $3,000, evolves from a business proposition to what looks like real wedlock, including offspring. Janeane Garofalo, slyly deadpan as Jerry's perplexed agent Jana, does a great job in what amounts to a tantalizingly small cameo. And when the hero returns home to Pittsburgh for the funeral of his mother – an apparent suicide – the audience will only be frustrated in its desire to learn more about his background.

Despite some small narrative flaws, though, Stiller alone is reason to keep watching. It's a brave, scary and antic tour de force from a performer who, over the past few years, has been slowly banging his head against the glass wall of typecasting. In "Permanent Midnight," the clown finally shatters the barrier and comes out the other side an actor.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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