Lionsgate // 1998 // 88 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // July 29th, 2008
He had a great job, a beautiful wife, and a habit the size of Utah.
Who says you can't have it all?
While for the last several years, Ben Stiller (Tropic Thunder) has been known for his comedic roles, he's also played it straight in some films, such as 1998's Permanent Midnight, which saw the actor playing real-life television writer Jerry Stahl, who wrote the autobiography upon which the film was based. So how does the actor fare in a darker role than the usual characters he plays?
Television writer Jerry Stahl (Ben Stiller) is looking for work when he agrees to marry an Englishwoman (Elizabeth Hurley, Bedazzled) for money so that she can get a green card. His new wife, Sandra, gets him a job writing for the hit comedy Mr. Chompers. Jerry, however, is a heroin addict, and as his condition spirals further and further out of control, he puts his personal and professional lives in jeopardy.
Permanent Midnight is worth seeing (not buying, necessarily) for one reason: Ben Stiller. The actor gives a striking and harrowing performance. According to information on the disc, Stiller went on a liquid diet for the scenes depicting Stahl's physical nadir, and the effort shows; Stiller looks terrible in this portion of the movie. In the film, Stiller is gaunt, pale and frequently sweating, and full of nervous energy, but never in a way that comes off as mannered. Even when the character really goes off the deep end, as he does during a script meeting following his dismissal from Mr. Chompers, it feels true to the performance and not some bid from Stiller to get the audience to laugh (although the scene is funny).
There are several great moments in Permanent Midnight, all involving Stiller. One scene has Stahl shooting up in a bathroom, and he begins to have hallucinations of the Mr. Chompers character (which is clearly patterned after Alf, for which Stahl wrote three episodes) coming into the bathroom with him. Another is when he and drug dealer Gus (Peter Greene, Clean, Shaven) get high and then repeatedly fling themselves against large windows inside an office building.
While the Mr. Chompers scene is somewhat disturbing, it and the Gus scene are largely humorous. Two other scenes I'll mention, however, are quite different: One depicts Stahl shooting up in a hospital bathroom while Sandra is giving birth, and another comes near the end of the film, when Stahl has to baby-sit his and Sandra's infant daughter, Nina. Unfortunately, Stahl needs to score -- bad -- and he takes Nina with him as he drives around, desperately searching for smack. He finally gets some, and shoots up inside the car -- with his baby daughter in the seat right next to him. On top of that, he is unable to shoot up into his arm, so he uses a vein in his neck. It's a tribute to Stiller's skillful performance that we can watch him in scenes as different in tone as the ones I've described and still buy his character.
If you don't like drug movies, or don't want to see Stiller in a less overtly comedic role, then you'd probably better avoid Permanent Midnight, because there isn't much else to recommend it. This was David Veloz's first (and to date only) film as a director, but the problem doesn't lie so much with the direction as it does the script, which Veloz adapted from Stahl's book. In the interest of full disclosure, I've never read the book and in fact had never heard of the man until this DVD arrived in my mailbox, so I can't attest to the authenticity of Veloz's film. I do know, however, that the way he chose to structure his film is undone by a crucial flaw: Much of the film is framed around Stahl telling his story to Kitty (Maria Bello, A History of Violence), a former junkie whom Stahl meets and promptly takes to a motel room. Following (and from the looks of it, during) their bouts of various nocturnal activities, Stahl tells Kitty his story, and as the plot progresses, we return -- again and again -- to that same motel room. I'm not sure why this storytelling device was deemed necessary (beyond eventually offering Stahl a chance of redemption, which he seems to be heading toward without her anyway by the end of the movie), but it feels too contrived and out of place, and the narrative's detours into the motel room also sap the story of some of its power and momentum.
Another problem I had with the script was Stahl's relationship with Sandra. First of all, I don't know anything about immigration laws and, again, I don't know anything about Stahl's life story, but the whole arranged-marriage concept never feels like it quite fits in the movie, and once the two are married, Veloz doesn't seem to know what to do with them. We never really see them progress as a couple (or even spend much time with each other), so when they ultimately end up having a baby together, it kind of comes out of left field.
Veloz seems to have been similarly confounded when trying to handle other supporting characters. Janeane Garofalo (Stay) turns up briefly as an agent who wants to represent Stahl, but after a couple scenes, she's dropped from the narrative and is never mentioned again. Owen Wilson is also in the mix as a close pal of Stahl's, although he, too, more or less disappears after the first act. As a matter of fact, this movie is stuffed with notable actors. Cheryl Ladd (Charlie's Angels) turns up briefly as the star of a show Stahl is hired to write for. Fred Willard (Best in Show) is also on hand as an executive with Mr. Chompers. Finally, there's Connie Nielsen (Brothers) in a brief but amusing appearance as Dagmar, a woman Stahl picks up at a bar. (Also look for Grey's Anatomy star Sandra Oh in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance.)
Lionsgate's DVD of Permanent Midnight is fine from a technical standpoint. In terms of extras, the most notable one is a feature commentary with Veloz. This is a very informative and interesting track, and Veloz keeps up a steady stream of discussion on multiple aspects of the production. I always enjoy hearing about how directors make films under budgetary/time constraints, and Veloz gives plenty of such information throughout the track. In addition, there are four deleted scenes, the only one of which I would have kept in the movie a bit where Stahl tries to buy a muffin during his period of jonesing with Nina. Finally, the disc contains the film's theatrical trailer as well as text-only production notes and cast and crew bios.
Note: Permanent Midnight comes in a cardboard sleeve with the Lionsgate logo on the back. However, the package for the disc itself has different art, and still has the Artisan Entertainment logo on it (as does the DVD itself). In other words, I'm guessing that this release is the exact same as the previous R1 DVD of Permanent Midnight that came out in 1999, so those who own it already shouldn't be fooled by the fancy-looking cardboard sleeve.
One has to give kudos to Ben Stiller for straying outside of his comfort zone to play a challenging (and physically demanding) role. The film he chose to do it for, however, is far from perfect otherwise, but Lionsgate's DVD does mitigate this to a degree.
Ben Stiller is free to go, but David Veloz is guilty of making some bad screenwriting decisions.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 6.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Feature commentary with director David Veloz
* Deleted scenes
* Theatrical trailer
* Production notes
* Cast and crew information