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Review: Too much junkie business in 'Permanent Midnight'

Web posted on: Friday, September 18, 1998 4:43:10 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- A director making a movie about drug addiction in the modern age is in something of a quandary right off the bat. By now, the subject matter is so familiar to most people (even if they've only been enlightened to it via TV movies) that they're not likely to learn anything from the protagonist's inevitable collapse through overmedication. We've all heard of John Belushi and Janis Joplin.

Back in the '50s, an addicted character study like "The Man With the Golden Arm" was dealing with new, dangerous subject matter (neighborhood church groups got up in arms about it) and it packed a wallop. That's no good now, though, because that kind of in-your-face melodrama would mostly induce eye-rolling.

You could also approach the topic from an entirely different angle and focus on the rigors of rehab (as Glenn Gordon Caron did in his truly memorable 1988 film, "Clean and Sober"), but, if you're not careful, that sets you up for accusations of preaching. I suppose you'd be safe if that's what you were looking to do -- there's hardly a more acceptable topic for a sermon than otherwise intelligent people dabbling in mainlining. Preaching is easy, though, and not many people will sit still for it nowadays.

Theatrical preview: "Permanent Midnight"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Clip: "Mr. Chompers"

Video clip: 2.1Mb QuickTime

"Permanent Midnight," the story of real-life TV comedy writer Jerry Stahl's addiction to (and eventual "victory" over) heroin is certainly modern-day in its approach. The trouble is that it's probably too modern-day. Ben Stiller, who plays Stahl, is shown shooting up over and over again in a variety of bathrooms and alleyways. There aren't a lot of dissolves to dilating pupils or trembling fists, either. The needle goes in, blood comes out, and Stiller slides into a stupor. It's pretty sickening.

However, the episodic script and some rather pedestrian direction by David Veloz end up leaving you a lot more comfortable with what you're looking at than common sense would suggest you should be.

For the most part, the movie is really a black comedy about Los Angeles-style self-obsession spiced with sudden drug interludes that jar you for a minute, then fade from memory as we head on to the next (occasionally facile) showbiz send-up. The script (also by Veloz) is often at odds with itself. We're supposed to be getting worked up over a talented writer flushing his hopes down the toilet through an escalating love affair with drugs, while simultaneously laughing at how shallow those dreams are in the first place.

Stiller is pretty good in several scenes, but not a whole lot more than that. I've written before that I think he's a hugely talented guy, and this performance is certainly a stretch compared to his usual film work, but the movie's entire conception is surprisingly thin. Stahl is portrayed as just about the most wryly likable junkie you'll ever come across ... or, at least, that's how everybody treats him. His story is told in flashbacks as he recounts his tale of woe to a beautiful recovering addict.

Like everyone else in the story besides Stahl, the woman (played by Maria Bello) is an empty vessel, just an available reason for there to be voiceovers. I'm not saying this because it's conveniently cute, but the movie unfolds like one of the sitcoms that Stahl works on between drug-induced trances. That's not to say that it's as empty as an episode of "Alf" (one of the shows Stahl wrote for during his addiction; the puppet's name has been changed so that the real Alf won't sue); it's just that there's not the slightest accumulation of dread from scene to scene.

I think there would be a hell of a story in the details of how someone survives in the high-pressure world of network TV while secretly holing up in East L.A. dives during his off-hours to shoot up smack. But that story never makes a whole-hearted appearance in the movie. Sure, Stahl loses jobs after making an ass of himself at a couple of meetings, but we never really see him juggling these two worlds. (Although just the knowledge of his problems might finally explain what was going on with "Alf.")

Most of his time is spent buying drugs and shooting up, then he comes to the office and acts like a wigged-out idiot. The guy functioned like this for a while in real life -- actually writing scripts that were then produced on national television -- and it's the functioning that gets shortchanged here. He gets addicted to heroin (and, later, crack), grows more and more obsessed with it, and loses his job. That's hardly a shock. Then he can't shake his habit, and everything gets worse from there. Again, I wouldn't call that a scoop.

There are also a number of inconsistencies in the script, the most notable of which concerns Stahl's green-card marriage of convenience to a British TV producer (played by Elizabeth Hurley). If you're gonna marry somebody sheerly for a wad of cash, I guess Liz Hurley would be an incredible coup, but Stiller and Hurley suddenly shift gears after a couple of non-committal scenes and start acting like their marriage is the real thing, with no explanation whatsoever.

When he eventually screws up badly enough for her to throw him out on the street, you don't care very much because you can't determine why they thought he belonged in the house in the first place. I should also point out to would-be sitcom writers that you're officially touched by God if you're hired for a network program before you have an agent. I don't know if that's how it happened to Stahl, but between this and stumbling into bed with Hurley, I can see why Stiller starts feeling invincible when it comes to shooting up.

All told, "Permanent Midnight" is a surprisingly ineffectual movie. This surprised me; I really expected a lot more than I got. There's the usual assortment of bad language, sex, nudity, and, of course, a smorgasbord of super-dangerous drug use. Janeane Garofalo makes an amusing cameo appearance as a seen-it-all agent. Rated R. 85 minutes, and that's as short as they come.

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