Stiller adds light to 'Midnight'

September 26, 1998|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,SUN STAFF

"Permanent Midnight," based on writer Jerry Stahl's memoir of drug addiction in Hollywood, shows just how stupid smart people can be. More impressive, it also demonstrates Ben Stiller's ability to make a self-loathing jerk sympathetic.

In director David Veloz's adaptation, Stiller plays the movie version of Stahl, who had great success writing scripts for TV shows including "Moonlighting" and "ALF" while he was strung out on enough illegal drugs to kill a Tyrannosaurus rex. We hear most of Jerry's bleak and darkly funny story as he tells it, from the other side of rehab, to an empathetic lover in a hotel room (the appealing Maria Bello).

He recounts his first days in L.A. hanging out with his friend Nicky (the endearingly daffy Owen Wilson) and quaffing any drugs at hand. He doesn't think twice about a marriage of hTC convenience to a beautiful British TV exec who needs a green card (Elizabeth Hurley, whose makeup is perfect even when her character is having a baby).

When the missus brings Jerry to a meeting for "Mr. Chompers" (the analogue for "ALF"), Jerry's veiled sarcasm is lost on the show's dimwitted producer (Fred Willard) as the writer compares the ugly puppet to Tom Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath." Jerry is hilariously subversive, even when he's a little doped up.

But as he gets higher, the movie gets darker, spinning crazily down the road to oblivion. Stiller drawls his way through a meeting in a green leisure suit, oozing intoxication. He and a fellow junkie smoke crack and throw themselves against the windows of an empty high-rise office, daring the glass to break. And a sequence in which Jerry drives his baby around while trying to score drugs is seriously squirm-inducing.

Despite Jerry's patent awfulness during this period, one can't help but wish that he comes through.

This is Jerry's brain on drugs, and Stiller makes us want to experience Jerry's funny, fertile mind out of the frying pan.

'Permanent Midnight'

Starring Ben Stiller

Directed by David Veloz

Released by Artisan Entertainment

Rated R (pervasive graphic drug use, strong sexuality and language)

Running time: 95 minutes

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 9/26/98

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