Why do people take illegal drugs? The most powerful
argument is given by one scuzzy character in Danny Boyle's
movie "Transpotting": "Imagine your best orgasm and multiply
it by one thousand." When Boyle was asked whether his
movie encouraged drug use, he replied "Absolutely not."
Yeah, right. Several movies provide an antidote to
"Trainspotting"'s glorification of chemical highs and lows,
beginning with Otto Preminger's "The Man with the Golden
Arm," with Frank Sinatra as the junkie and Eleanor Parker his
crippled wife. That major work, now dated, is still powerful,
and has a jazz score by Elmer Bernstein that hasn't yet been
beaten by movies of that genre. But for sheer in-your-face
potency, you'd look hard to find a better remedy to drug-
glorification films than "Permanent Midnight." What gives
David Veloz's new film its extra poignancy is that it's all true.
The events really happened, as recorded in TV writer Jerry
Stahl's autobiography which has been successfully adapted to
the screen. Stahl, who had a promising career writing for the
thriving puppet-show sitcom "Mr. Chompers," was making
$5,000 a week at the time. Trouble is he was paying out
$6,000 a week for cocaine and heroin, and you don't have to
have a CPA to know that this does not provide a favorable
individual balance sheet. Stahl spent some time in an L.A.
rehab clinic and based on the film's conclusion seems now to
be clean. He appeared on several TV interview shows to spill
all--Oprah, Geraldo et al--and was the ideal guest who must
have kept the folks in the audience tut-tutting throughout the
Forceful direction by Veloz and poignant acting by the
talented Ben Stiller compel audience attention to what
otherwise might have been a fairly static chamber piece
suitable more for stage than screen. The thirty-two year old
Stiller is positioned early on in his career to surpass the
renown of his talented parents, Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller,
and now seems to be one of the most sought-after actors
though largely for indie films. You're not a serious movie buff
if you've missed the likes of "Reality Bites," "Flirting with
Disaster," "If Lucy Fell," and his most exciting work to date in
Neil LaBute's "Your Friends and Neighbors." In "Permanent
Midnight" he appears at first behind a fast-food stand,
obviously too bright for positioning tartar sauce on fish
sandwiches for mentally challenged customers. Kitty (Maria
Bello), pulling up in her convertible, sees that in him in one
glance, invites him for coffee and, of course, they end up in
bed. Mellowing out, Stahl becomes eager to confess his life
while the attractive woman at his side is all-ears. We in the
audience eavsdrop on the intimate details of his sordid tale.
Stahl takes us through his green-card marriage to the
stunning Sandra (Elizabeth Hurley, a dead ringer for early
Jacqueline Bisset), for which he receives $30,000. His writing
gains the attention of the producer of a TV puppet show, Mr.
Chompers. He fixes the script, the show takes off, and
Stahl's career seems made, but for one thing: he is an addict.
"I'm from New York, but I came to LA to get away from the
drugs," he confesses not without waggery.
Now, director Veloz does not let the audience off the hook
by turning Robert D. Yeoman's camera away from the
innermost details of the needle. Veloz does for narcotics
what Spielberg did for war: he takes us right into the action to
watch every miserable component. We see Stahl slowly bind
his arm with a tube, insert the needle, remove it, and roll his
eyes upward as he fixates on the evil liquid in the syringe. At
one point, when he apparently has run out of veins, he
plunges the hypodermic deep into his neck. We watch it all.
(Five people walked out of the screening at this point, which
is a recommendation for the movie.) He steals percodan from
his wife's medicine cabinet, going through his usual routine
since his wife is just outside the door. He coughs when he
opens the chest, and flushes the toilet when he closes it. He
steals drugs from a friend, having discovered the hiding place.
Just out of a rehab session, he is seduced by another "friend"
into shooting heroin and smoking a crack pipe, after which he
and associate begin running toward the unbreakable window
of an office building and literally smashing repeatedly against
the glass, rolling like cretins on the carpeted floor.
The greatest irony of the story is that Stahl is a health nut
who jogs five miles after breakfast and insists on eating only
In a less than successful scene he flirts with an
unresponsive agent (Janeane Garofalo in a rare, serious,
role), but for the most part the movie works because Stiller is
so convincing that you'd almost think he was forced to shoot
up repeatedly in researching the part. "Permanent Midnight" is
one muscular film about Hollywood's underbelly, done without
commercialized fanfare but with a great deal of attention to
the real hazards of self-destructive addictions.
Copyright © 1998 Harvey Karten