Permanent Midnight

on September 18, 1998 by Christine James
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   Based on the autobiography of Jerry Stahl, "Permanent Midnight" stars Ben Stiller as a B-level television writer whose drug addiction impedes his career and marriage. Kicking off with a stylishly macabre opening credits sequence in which the film's title is spelled out in elegant cursive writing, complete with curlicue underlining, by blood squirted out of a syringe, the film promises audiences a deviant delight. Unfortunately, it does not live up to that promise, focusing too much on the horrors and patheticness of Stahl's downward spiral instead of exploring the darkly comedic bent for which the film occasionally shows such a flair.
   At one point, a wired Stahl is depicted blowing a great job opportunity as he manically suggests that a straightforward sitcom about a female judge include surreal Ethel Merman-type segments, with the judge bursting into song for no reason and the floor suddenly opening up to reveal a pool full of singing swimmers, the key being to never acknowledge the incongruity with the rest of the action. That is exactly the sort of device that could have made "Permanent Midnight" genius. Show us that scene as he's describing it. Let us see things from Stahl's perspective during one of his multitudinous drug binges. Anyone familiar with Stahl's work, particularly the twisted 1989 midnight movie he scripted, "Dr. Caligari" (which is not even mentioned in this film), would expect that an adaptation about this eccentric artist would be equally idiosyncratic. Instead, it's a dismal, though periodically intriguing, glimpse of the psyche of a man who, despite Stiller's great comic timing, is not depicted as being charismatic or interesting enough for anyone to care that much about.    Starring Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Hurley and Maria Bello. Directed and written by David Veloz. An Artisan release. Comedy/drama. Rated R for pervasive graphic drug use, strong sexuality and language. Running time: 86 min.
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