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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

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 interviews.

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 organic vegetables.

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

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