Meh. Who cares?
That was largely my reaction to watching the 1998 film, Permanent Midnight. In this film, Ben Stiller plays Jerry Stahl, a real-life screenwriter who had a fairly successful career going in the 80s and early 90s. He came out to Los Angeles looking to be a serious writer but, instead, he ended up writing for silly puppet show and getting addicted to heroin. He also married a British television executive named Sandra (Elizabeth Hurley), so that Sandra could get her green card. When the star of a show that he writes for tells him to kick his habit or lose his job, Jerry ends up smoking crack cocaine with a new dealer (Peter Greene). When Sandra tells him that she’s pregnant, Jerry responds by shooting up in the bedroom. When he’s trusted to spend the day taking care of his baby daughter, he drives her around the seediest sections of Los Angeles while he searches for his drug dealer. As the baby cries beside him, Jerry shoots heroin into his jugular. Jerry ends up unemployable and abandoned by every friend that he had. He works at a fast food restaurant, or at least he does until he meets another recovering addict (Maria Bello). She’s the one to whom he tells his story, in between sex and bouts of impotence. In the end, what’s left for Jerry Stahl to do but write a book and then a movie about his life as a junkie?
It’s a harrowing story and I guess Stahl deserves some credit for writing the screenplay for a movie that doesn’t exactly make him look good. However, Permanent Midnight runs into the same problem that afflicts most movies about drug addiction. With very few exceptions, drug addicts are just not that interesting. The only thing more boring than watching someone shoot up is then having to listen to that person explain why he shoots up. (Trainspotting is the obvious exception but Trainspotting benefits from Danny Boyle’s frenetic direction, Ewan McGregor’s explosively charismatic lead performance, a witty script, and a killer soundtrack. These are things that Permanent Midnight lacks.) The film attempts to build up some sympathy for Stahl by telling us about his difficult childhood, his father’s suicide, and his mother’s instability but, in the end, Jerry is a junkie who shoots up in front of his baby. Regardless of how crappy his childhood was, it’s hard to care about whether or not he ever gets his shit together. Mostly, you just want someone to step in and make sure he never gets near that baby again.
Permanent Midnight makes another mistake, one that is all too common when it comes to films about troubled artists. It continually tells us that Jerry is a talented and important writer without ever showing us any evidence of that fact. We’re supposed to feel bad that Jerry is stuck working on a sitcom called Mr. Chompers but, at no point, does the film really convince us that he deserves anything better. Everyone says that Jerry is talented but we don’t really get to see any evidence of that fact. It’s hard not to feel that maybe Jerry should just be happy that, unlike the majority of writers in Los Angeles, he actually has a steady job.
(Jerry does get one good line, when he appears on The Maury Povich Show to promote his book and says, “People always ask, ‘What’s the worst thing heroin drove you to do?’ I always answer, ‘showing up on Maury.'”)
Of course, for most people, the main appeal of seeing Permanent Midnight will be the chance to see Ben Stiller shooting up heroin while soaked in withdrawal sweat. Stiller gives a serious performance, good enough that you regret that his acting career now seems to mostly consist of starring in bad movies and making cameos in even worse ones. There’s actually a lot of familiar faces in Permanent Midnight: Elizabeth Hurley, Maria Bello, Fred Willard, Owen Wilson, Sandra Oh, Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, and others. They all give good enough performance but ultimately, this is aimless and ultimately rather frustrating movie.