Film Review: Permanent Midnight (dir by David Veloz)


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.

A Movie A Day #117: Shadow Hours (2000, directed by Isaac H. Eaton)


Straight from the direct-to-video graveyard comes this journey through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles.  Michael Holloway (Balthazar Getty) used to drink every hour and snort cocaine every night.  That was the past.  Now, he is clean and sober.  Michael is married to Chloe (Rebecca Gayheart) and they have a baby on the way.  In desperate need of money to support his family, Michael gets a job working the night shift at a 24-hour gas station.  Most of his customers are the scum of the Earth until, one night, Stuart Chappell (Peter Weller) steps into the station.  Stuart claims to be a writer and he hires Michael to accompany him on an exploration of the dark side of L.A.  They start with strip bars and then eventually move on to fight clubs and BDSM parlors.  Everywhere they go, Stuart is recognized but everyone knows him by a different name.  Soon, Michael is not only drinking and doing drugs again but he is also the prime suspect in a murder.

Shadow Hours is a dumb but entertaining vision of Los Angeles as Hades.  It has loads of atmosphere but it’s all taken from other movies, a hint of Taxi Driver there and a pinch of 8mm here.  The film’s main weakness is that it stars Balthazar Getty, who, as an actor, has the least sympathetic screen presence this side of Edward Furlong.  Even if Getty was playing a paraplegic veteran who had devoted his life to finding good homes for stray puppies, he would still come across as unlikable.  Make him a loser who spend most of the movie lying to his pregnant wife and it is impossible to care what happens to Michael.  The film’s main strength is that it also stars Peter Weller, who is pitch perfect as the mysterious Stuart, who might be the Devil.  If the whole movie had just been Peter Weller going to bars and fight clubs and hanging out with Lydia Lunch, Shadow Hours would have been a B masterpiece.  It’s too bad he had to take an oil heir with him.