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My So-Called Habit

[whitespace] Permanent Midnight
Cold Turkey: Ben Stiller tries for attitude as TV hack-turned-junkie Jerry Stahl.

'Permanent Midnight' is the slight story of a narcissistic heroin addict

By Richard von Busack

BEN STILLER STARS in Permanent Midnight, based on the memoir of Jerry Stahl, a real-life sitcom writer who bottomed out with needle drugs. Stahl wrote for the TV puppet show Alf (thinly disguised here as Mr. Chompers). As Stahl, Stiller tells the tale to an idealized, sympathetic--and I bet fictional--woman (Maria Bello) he stayed with in a desert motel. He recalls the story of his crackup in flashbacks: how he lost his career, wife and child. But there's no drama--he obviously didn't care very much for all three.

Permanent Midnight is a slight film, and it's probably missing the point to take it seriously. Among the legions of movies about junkies, Permanent Midnight seems the most like a sitcom: My So-Called Habit, or Bent Silver Spoons. Stahl's fellow heroin-fiends come in two classes: they're either maternal, like his Chicana East L.A. connection, acted in the fashion of an earthy comic maid in a sitcom; or they're criminal nutcases, like the malevolent hypo Gus. Played by Peter Greene, Gus is far more interesting than the hero. But it's not hard to out-act Ben Stiller. The comedian is moving toward drama in recent films, particularly Your Friends and Neighbors. It's a misguided move. He's a modest light comic on the lines of Jerry Seinfeld, but there's no evidence that he's more than that. Even his neuroses seem lightweight. When watching him buttered up with glycerine junk sweat, all you see is a narcissistic performance derived from a narcissistic book.

There's a repellent, manipulative streak in this film, a sense of false candor in the way the picture attempts to mend Stahl's fences for him. Especially vague is Stahl's relationship with his wife (Elizabeth Hurley), a Brit who married him for a green card and stayed to have his baby. When she decides to have the kid, it isn't from deep passion--as we can see from the casual relationship portrayed on screen. A woman who lets herself have a baby by a junkie doesn't have much of a right to be upset when he turns out to be a less than ideal father. She might be seen to have a manipulative streak to let herself be impregnated, too. And when she leaves Stahl in charge of the child--the cause of his bottoming out--how are we supposed to feel? Really, a woman with that kind of money had no other options? (The portrait of the wife, a television executive, is more sympathetic than an audience ought to trust.)

At the end of Permanent Midnight are clips from real-life TV interviews with Stahl by Tom Snyder and others; these interviews are cut with actor Ben Stiller playing Stahl answering the questions. As Stahl, Stiller wisecracks in voiceover that the worst thing heroin did to him was make him appear on the Maury Povich show. Of course Stahl never had a more famous moment in his life either. Heroin was actually very good for his career. The chat show circuit gave Stahl a chance to lay the blame for his needle problem on his parents. Naturally, Stahl isn't the first to flash his tracks on national TV, but Povich, Snyder, Terri Gross and the rest were especially keen on Stahl, whose profile could be boiled down to one catchy sentence: "He had a $5,000 a week salary and a $6,000 habit." The salary made Stahl more interesting than the average habitual--or so this film would have you believe. But Stahl isn't the kind of worm that makes for an interesting dissection. And the burning of this character's talent isn't a bonfire big enough to light a cigarette on.

Permanent Midnight (R; 85 min.), directed and written by David Veloz, photographed by Robert Yeoman and starring Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Hurley and Maria Bello.

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From the October 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro.

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