A satisfying film works like a satisfying anecdote: It introduces the protagonist, sets up the situation, withholds certain pieces of information in the name of suspense, builds to a climax, and then delivers a punch lineIf the anecdote’s punch line is unsatisfying, an awkward silence descends upon the audience, and the storyteller begins to feel the color of shame in his cheeks, regardless of how skillfully he presented the material leading up to it.
The storyteller’s audience, blessed with a short term memory, can forgive an anecdote gone awry as an act of misguided spontaneity. The anecdote might have failed, but it took a certain level of courage to tell it, and that in itself is honorable.
An unsatisfying film about anecdotes is much harder to forgive because it rather brazenly hedges its bets on this same reward system, except now it has to be sustained over an hour and a half. Permanent Midnight is such a film.
Based on a memoir by television writer Jerry Stahl (Thirtysomething, ALF), it plunges headlong into the clichéd gutter of sex, drugs, and motels with the relish of self-mythology. Unfortunately, its myths are too hollow and too familiar to enlighten.
We meet Jerry (Ben Stiller) working at a late night fast food joint. A woman named Kitty (Maria Bello) pulls into the drive-thru and invites him to have a cup of coffee with her. She detects that he is a recovering addict like herself, and she is correct.
They establish an immediate connection and go to a motel for sex. Only Jerry is vain enough to fill the post-coital air with his story.
Jerry, we learn, was once a gifted comedy writer living in LA. When he married Sandra (Liz Hurley), a friend of a friend who needed help with a visa, she brought him in on a TV show she was working on called Mr. Chompers(an alias for ALF, the actual show Jerry Stahl worked on). Mr. Chompers is a sitcom starring a puppet, and though Jerry finds the work demeaning, he gives it a radical makeover that somehow garners a fair amount of success.
Meanwhile, Sandra starts to fall in love with him, but Jerry cannot reciprocate because he is incapable of loving anything other than himself. And heroin.
His heroin addiction is costing him $5,000 a week, not to mention the prospect of continuing to work as a writer. He gets fired from Mr. Chompers due to his increasingly erratic behavior, and when Sandra introduces him to her friend Jana (Janeane Garofalo), a Hollywood agent interested in representing him, he is far too strung out to realize (or care) that she is sexually attracted to him. In another moment of self-sabotage, he walks into a job interview for an established television show high as a kite and tries to talk his way around the fact that he’s never even seen the show.
His only friends are fellow junkies Nicky (Owen Wilson) and Gus (the underrated Peter Greene), the latter aggressively pushing the best smack he can find on Jerry. In one oddly life-affirming scene, he takes Jerry up to a high rise suite, gets him high, and starts throwing him against the floor-to-ceiling windows until they both collapse in a fit of sweat and laughter.
The low point for Jerry comes when Sandra gives birth to his child, an event he isn’t entirely present for because he’s too busy shooting up in the hospital bathroom. Still, he finds it vaguely impressive that he is a father, even if he doesn’t know the first thing about parenthood.
Apparently, neither does Sandra. She inexplicably consigns Jerry to babysitting duty for one night while she attends to some other business. He cruises around LA with the baby in the passenger seat, looking for his next fix. When he finds it, he shoots up in the car, right next to the infant, and attempts to drive home. The police arrest him and call Social Services.
As far as the central performance goes, Ben Stiller has the unenviable task of finding the humanity in Jerry. Largely unsympathetic, the best Stiller can hope for as Jerry is a “realistic” portrayal of bottomless addiction. While Jerry certainly looks like a man physically trying to crawl out of his own skin, it’s hard to discern whether he is merely the sum of his chemical parts or is further motivated by the self-loathing we suspect under the surface.
Permanent Midnight’s failure to more fully explore the latter possibility turns what might have been a charged performance from Stiller into a perfunctory one. The film, like Jerry, is a classic case of self-sabotage. By emphasizing Jerry’s emotional alienation from humanity due to his habit, the film alienates the viewer from their own experience of his journey. Not that it’s an especially attractive journey to undertake in the first place.
The most accessible performance belongs to Liz Hurley. Her interpretation of Sandra as a foil to Jerry’s chronic heedlessness extends rather graciously to her role in David Veloz’s script. She exposes the real cost of Jerry’s habit with only a handful of wounded looks, and in the end she redeems him and his film. Sort of.
Permanent Midnight aspires to a level of deconstructive pulp on par with Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a drug odyssey that manages to wrangle the smallest moments of tragic beauty out of ugliness and despair. Veloz’s film gets only the druggy, episodic parts. Permanent Midnight, like most anecdotes, seems designed to impress rather than express.
The DVD extras include feature commentary with director David Veloz.