Friday, September 25, 1998

Stiller gets serious -- and it works

Movie: Permanent Midnight

Posted on Fri, Sep 25, 1998 at 4:00 AM

***
Our Rating: 3.00

Adapted from the acclaimed 1995 book, "Permanent Midnight" is the autobiographical account of writer Jerry Stahl's dual life as a successful sitcom scribe and $6,000-a-week heroin addict. The movie proposes the astonishing revelations that heroin is bad and TV sitcoms are dumb, and offers only a smattering of the sardonic wit and humor that made the book such a success. Yet despite its faults, "Permanent Midnight' is still a surprisingly compelling film, due largely to Ben Stiller's performance as Jerry Stahl.

It takes a little while to get used to seeing Stiller in Serious Actor Mode, which sounds like a dig at his acting skills, but is really more of a compliment to his previous comedic work. Stiller's mere presence in a film is usually a signal to anticipate huge belly laughs, so when the film opens with Stahl down and out in fast-food hell, wearing a bright-red visor, trying to chip apart a block of frozen fish fillets with a paint scraper, the result is more hilarious than pathetic.

Stahl/Stiller then gets picked up by Maria Bello (TV's "E.R."), and in a largely unnecessary plot-framing device, recounts his rise and fall in flashback while they spend the night in a sleazy motel. (Do movie junkies frequent any other kind?) Stahl's tale begins with a marriage of convenience to a British TV executive (Elizabeth Hurley) -- she gets a green card, he gets $30,000. Their relationship is presented as if to seem stifling, but doesn't elicit much sympathy, since it really is a pretty sweet deal. They get along well at first, since she doesn't yet realize he's a druggie, mostly copping joints and Percodan at this point.

The catalyst that turns him into an instant junkie seems to be having excessively sweaty yet not unpleasant sex with a creepy German woman (again, another "Huh?"). He lands a job writing for "Mr. Chompers," a surreal, changed-enough-to-not-get-sued version of "Alf." Obviously this is slumming -- Stahl is a literate, intelligent fellow. Or so we are told he is, rather than seeing real evidence of his talent as a writer, wherein lies the film's central problem. Other than his passing references to Heidegger and Fritz Lang and a couple of feverish typing montages, Stahl's brilliant wit is mostly spoken about by other characters.

The real source of tragedy in this film should be Stahl's unrealized potential, but since we are never really fully shown that potential, his downward spiral is not nearly as heartbreaking as it could or should be.

Despite the film's problems (mostly stemming from the script), it's still tight and well-directed. Stiller's believable performance is the glue that holds it together. He's done his homework for this one and is especially convincing in scenes where he's supposed to be stoned out of his gourd, but trying to act straight (a litmus test for these types of roles). Seeing him in another serious role after this one won't be a stretch at all.

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