Ben Stiller has become a leading man by playing what used to be called a nice guy. On screen, he dithers about his own desires, and he stares with imploring sensitivity at whomever he’s talking to, as if desperate to win their approval. All of which is to say that in the ’90s, the line between being a ”nice guy” and a pathetically self-centered loser has all but disappeared.
In Permanent Midnight, an adaptation of former television writer Jerry Stahl’s I-was-a-yuppie-junkie memoir, Stiller plays an aspiring fiction writer who arrives in L.A., lands a job penning crappy but lucrative TV scripts, and descends into quasi-functional heroin addiction. He shoots up to go into the office, at parties, before interviews, before sex. He squirts blood from used needles onto the bathroom ceiling and wanders about in a sweaty, blue-skinned daze, bamboozling everyone with jittery bursts of ”Okay, man, here’s the scam!” patter. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Ben Stiller, unhinged!
Much as I’d like to report that Stiller is brilliant as a strung-out, black-leather-clad, network-rat Lenny Bruce, he’s actually all wrong for the part. He gets the nattering, cold-fever surface of junkie solipsism but not the raging ego beneath. Permanent Midnight sounds like an intriguing plunge into the underbelly of the entertainment industry, but, as written and directed by David Veloz, the film is slapdash and tame. It processes its raw subject into the kind of flimsy, innocuous ”episodes” you’d expect to see in a primly didactic TV movie.
Much of the picture doesn’t even make sense. When Stahl agrees to join in a green-card marriage, it’s never clear why his wife-in-name-only suddenly regards the union as real. (Since she’s played by Elizabeth Hurley, this seems little more than a horny adolescent fantasy.) More centrally, there’s no logic or progression to Stahl’s descent. He’s down, he’s up, he’s stoned, he’s clean, he trashes his career, he still has lots of money — it’s the film’s dramatic arc that ought to be in rehab.
Permanent Midnight has so little Hollywood-insider atmosphere that Stahl could just as well have been a decadent insurance executive. The author’s point of view is that of a reformed addict; he’s here to lecture us, and maybe to shock us a bit, too. But his ”cautionary” stance is really just cautious. Permanent Midnight never shows us who Jerry Stahl was before he began shooting junk, and so we have no real stake in what the drugs did to him. He’s a case study in search of a movie. C