Smack daddy

Hollywood life seen through the eye of the needle.

Every once in a while as a film critic, I get to impart some really useful information. Here’s some: In Permanent Midnight, Ben Stiller boots heroin into his neck. This magic moment takes place around about the third act, and trust me, you’ll know when it’s coming. Now that I’ve alerted you, you’ll have plenty of time to put your hands over your eyes—or be careful not to blink, depending on your proclivities.

Permanent Midnight

directed by David Veloz

starring Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Hurley

now playing at Broadway Market

The fact is, even the most fainting needlephobe may be inured to the sight of the spike by the time it enters our man’s neck. The film is a witty, unexpected pr飩s on the drug life, but it gives in to a kind of cheap fetishism about shooting up. Once or twice would be fine, gritty, whatever, but it becomes a punctuation for the syntax of the film right from the get-go. In the opening scene, Stiller is shown shooting up in a bathroom stall. When he’s done he squirts the blood from the syringe up onto the fluorescent-lit ceiling, spelling out the film’s title in a clever bit of sick-out that got a verbal, creepily delighted audience reaction.

From there on out, it’s party in needle park. Stiller plays Jerry Stahl, the TV writer who told the story of his monster habit in his 1995 memoir, also titled Permanent Midnight. Most notoriously, Stahl wrote of shooting up in the studio bathroom in between story meetings for ALF. The film revisits this unlikely conjunction of dark and light LA with the same self-aware acerbity that Stahl displays in his book, where he described himself as “that most beloved of ’80s entertainment commodities: safe edge.” Stiller’s depiction of Stahl betrays that same undeniably funny self-loathing. On a date, his leather pants split up the ass. “Jewish leather,” he explains. “It’s designed for humiliation.”

Jerry tells his story in retrospect from a hotel room he’s sharing with an ex-junkie named Kitty (ER‘s Maria Bello). The story, in its bare bones, isn’t much: He marries a British ex-pat (Elizabeth Hurley) so she can get a green card, he tries to write TV, he has a child. What illuminates it is the wit of the script and Stiller’s wildly physical humor. The same slapstick talent showcased in the dog-wrestling scene in There’s Something About Mary gets a subversive turn here, as—ripped to the tits on smack—he tries to impress producers with his suavity. Hurley makes a nice foil with her own luminous physicality. There’s a kind of force field between her and the camera. It’s a sexual conduit, but it’s friendly too. In fact, her magnetism is so palpable that her relationship with Jerry becomes hard to believe—she’s a poster child for Dr. Laura’s Dumb Things Women Do.

But the main problem with the film is the same malaise the book suffered from: Too much dope, not enough ALF. It’s a real shame the film spends so much time in the blood-spattered bathroom, because there’s real humor and pathos going on outside the door, out where Jerry is trying to get by in the straight world. Director David Veloz remains resolutely hung up on the needle. There’s a kind of muscular aesthetic at work here, the “How much can you take” school of filmmaking demonstrated in so many junkie pictures. Whether or not that’s a valid aesthetic is one question, but let’s be realistic: Most people don’t like needles.