Featuring a great performance from lead actor Ben Stiller, this film is reminiscent of, but not quite as compelling as Mike Figgis' highly acclaimed "Leaving Las Vegas." Based on the real life story of TV writer Jerry Stahl and his subsequent 1995 autobiographical work from which the movie is based, this is the sort of film that's easy to appreciate, yet hard to find entertaining.
Staged as a series of flashbacks told by the now clean protagonist, "Permanent Midnight" is much like "Leaving Las Vegas" -- or any other film dealing with addiction in a non-glamorous fashion -- in which you watch the painful, and less then entertaining descent into self-destruction by an addicted individual.
While the film definitely suffers from its flashback-induced, disjointed structure, that flaw surprisingly begins to take on something of a somewhat surreal representation of a former addict's fragmented memory of his or her previous lifestyle. Even so, the haphazard construction of the ninety or so minute film not only gives one the feeling that the source material has been truncated, but it also prevents the film from ever having a strong narrative thrust.
Events and characters are quickly introduced into what appear to be prominent scenes, but then just as abruptly disappear. Although the individual segments are often intriguing, if not gripping -- including a scene where we collectively dread what's going to happen to an infant in Jerry's drugged up care -- they don't add up to a structurally sound collective whole. Likewise, such moments and the entire movie don't really show a side of this damaging behavior that we haven't seen in many other, similarly based films.
Nonetheless, one has to commend Ben Stiller ("There's Something About Mary," "Your Friends and Neighbors") for a standout performance in a less than glamorous, and often risky role. Perfectly capturing the essence of an artistically creative junkie -- a volatile combination if there ever was one -- Stiller is not only completely believable (beyond his losing thirty some pounds to look "right"), but like Nicolas Cage in "Vegas," he creates a character you can't help but watch as he self-destructs.
The supporting cast is certainly decent and competent, but most of the characters are not very well developed. Other than Elizabeth Hurley ("Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," "Dangerous Ground") -- who always looks great in her ever present fashion model mode -- and Maria Bello (TV's "ER") as Jerry's present day "girlfriend," the remaining characters -- such as Cheryl Ladd as a TV star and Peter Greene as Jerry's new drug dealer -- are sketchily drawn at best and only temporarily present.
They, like many of the scenes scattered throughout the film, often feel as if something will come of them, but are then abandoned as the story haphazardly jumps to another flashback in the former addict's life.
While writer/director David Veloz (who cowrote "Natural Born Killers") infuses enough humor into the proceedings to somewhat soften the otherwise depressing and harrowing events, at other times he includes scenes (whether reality based or not), that derail the film's realistic feel.
For instance, late in the story Sandra calls upon Jerry to babysit their child because she can't find anyone else and must attend an important meeting. While this may have really occurred, and is effectively used to generate some dramatic tension as we wonder what he's going to do -- or allow to happen -- to his child, the moment feels artificial and forced.
We know there's no way any protective mother would leave her child with a known drug addict -- even if he is the father -- especially since he's rarely been around the child and has proven to be untrustworthy.
Beyond that, the film never manages to really explore the world of TV writing -- or for that matter, Jerry's life before drugs -- to make his involvement in either more than a superficial examination. Even the film's use of "Mr. Chompers" as a stand in for that awful TV show "Alf" (for which Stahl wrote along with "Moonlighting" and "Twin Peaks") is extremely glossed over.
Failing to deliver much of anything beyond Stiller's gritty performance, the film never connects with the audience due its fragmented nature that blocks the story from ever establishing a strong narrative feel, and because we never know or care much about the protagonist. We give "Permanent Midnight" a 5 out of 10.