Published September 1, 1998
Permanent Midnight, written and directed by David Veloz and based on the autobiographical book by Jerry Stahl is chiefly notable for the performance of Ben Stiller as Jerry Stahl, the TV writer who became a heroin addict and then, in recovery, managed to carve out a nice little career for himself as an ex-addict. Stiller does a fine job of presenting to us the junkie’s desperate, hopeless love affair with the magic powder and the physical and moral ruin it produces in him, but, like all movies based on some pathology, it excludes the kind of sympathy that true art depends on. We are asked both to admire and loathe Jerry as a hero of the counter-culture, an Argonaut of the senses, but he cannot escape from his own banality. Here is a man who put himself through hell in search of nothing but pleasure. Are we supposed to shake our fists at the heavens because the heroin did to him what he knew it would do to him and what it does to everyone else foolish or solipsistic enough to try it? Ultimately, he is nothing but a public service advertisement.
Still, there are some funny moments. Kitty (Maria Bello), the blonde ex-junkie to whom Jerry tells his story, sardonically observes: “I get it. You’re the angsty, arty, Hemingway type who sold out to Hollywood, hit the needle and ended up in rehab.” Jerry is a cliché before he even gets down to the details. But, like a lot of junkies, he manages to find a certain amount of humor in his own stupidity, as when he tells Kitty that he moved from New York to L.A. “get away from drugs.” There, he contracted a marriage of convenience with Sandra (Elizabeth Hurley), a British producer in need of a green card, and she gets him his first writing job in TV. “I had to sleep my way to the middle,” he later tells Kitty.
Amazingly, they stay together for some time and in spite of Jerry’s growing drug habit. “Did you love her?” asks Kitty?
“Occasionally,” he replies.
“Did she love you?”
“She saw us as a potential Hollywood power couple in the making. It’s kind of like love.”
He describes his day to Kitty. Get up. Shoot heroin. Eat health food breakfast. Run five miles. “I was an LA junkie,” he explains. “I had to stay fit.”
But such “fitness” is really only a redundant illustration of what he later tells one of the talk show hosts during his rehabilitative phase when he is asked how he managed to function in a job and a marriage while he was high on smack all the time. “Everybody in Hollywood is so self-obsessed they don’t really notice anyone else,” he says.
Dramatically, the movie is a mess—as autobiographical pictures often are. Janeane Garofalo makes two brief appearances as a prospective agent, but she really has nothing to do. Most of Jerry’s non-drug life is just filler. Even Kitty turns out to be nothing but the receptacle for Jerry’s life story, his rehearsal audience for the talk show career, and she goes off to run a brew pub in Alaska in the end. What was that about? we wonder. Unfortunately, getting off the stuff scarcely seems to have diminished Jerry’s self-obsession. But the film’s saving grace is that at least he has the wit to see this himself. The best joke in the picture (and there are a few good ones) comes in the final moments when in voiceover, Jerry tells us that, when he is “asked what was the worst thing heroin drove me to do, I answer: going on ‘Maury’” [Povich]—a TV talk show.