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Permanent Midnight

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Permanent Midnight

Starring: Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Hurley
Director: David Veloz
Rated: R
RunTime: 90 Minutes
Release Date: September 1998
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Janeane Garofalo, Connie Nielsen

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
1½ stars out of 4

We live in an era of personal problems made public, an "Oprah" age where people seek attention and absolution by hauling the results of their poor decision-making skills in front of the nearest spotlight. Using the media as an ersatz confession booth, they pour out the intimate details of their obsessions, compulsions and other assorted demons; expecting, and generally receiving, forgiving applause following their "daring" displays of honesty.

Once reserved for celebrities, this peculiar form of self-flagellation is now available to anyone willing to sacrifice their privacy and dignity in exchange for attention. After a local television newsreader was arrested for driving while intoxicated, she spoke with the print media and received a couple of splashy profiles. In both stories the notion of lives endangered by a drunk tooling erratically down the interstate became secondary, eclipsed by her sad tale of how family losses, bouts with depression and a near-suicidal state of mind led to her brush with the law. Cue the string section, flip on the applause sign, and let's all pray she stays sober.

"Permanent Midnight" recounts the true story of Jerry Stahl, a writer who routinely earned upwards of $5,000 a week creating scripts for shows like "Alf" and "Moonlighting," while spending $6,500 a week on heroin and cocaine. He eventually hit bottom, of course. That's what junkies do. Told in flashbacks, the film covers his descent to the depths of addiction and his work on recovery, culminating in scenes of Stahl appearing on various daytime talk shows, baring his soul while promoting his tell-all autobiography.

Let's pause and look at Stahl's accomplishments. From his addiction he spun a book, lots of television and print exposure, a feature film in which he makes a cameo appearance, and more interviews to promote the film. Nice work, Jerry! What's next, action figures?

Within this massive exercise in self-exploitation lies a solid, if unexceptional, movie. "Permanent Midnight" offers nothing we haven't seen before, but as far as harrowing portrayals of junkies go, this one is unflinching and well-acted. Ben Stiller gives a strong performance as Stahl, making heroin addiction look as ghastly as we already knew it was. The film shows entertainment industry types willing to make allowances for Stahl's outrageous behavior, as long as he kept cranking out material. The scenes are interesting, but certainly not surprising.

Stahl's tale, like most calculated tell-all's, remains firmly focused on him. As with the aforementioned newsreader, the effects of Stahl's behavior on others is far less important than his pain, his loss of esteem, his shame. You see, in "Oprah-land," the confessor is the star, always remaining the center figure in their real-life soap opera; with everyone around them fretting over the confessor's tragic self- destructive behavior. Stahl's horrible actions are presented graphically because audiences require that. After all, what good is a public confession without juicy details about personal degradation?

Aside from Ben Stiller's acting, the only thing that really stands out about "Permanent Midnight" is the sheer callousness behind its creation. Adding even more irony to the cynical proceedings is the appearance of "NewsRadio's" Andy Dick as a junkie discussing his habit alongside Stahl during the talk show montage that closes the film. In real life, Dick is almost as well known for his struggles with substance abuse as he is for his comedic skills. The spectacle of a real Hollywood addict playing a confessional addict onscreen is borderline surreal and unquestionably sad.

So what message does "Permanent Midnight" send? It's an anti-drug film, to be sure, but who among us doesn't already know what addiction can do to the human soul? Ultimately, I think the film's message is this: if you're plagued by personal demons, get yourself a good agent, because there's gold in them thar hills.

Copyright 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott

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