Permanent Boredom

The latest in the junkie-flick genre has plenty of low low's, but unfortunately few highs. Janelle Brown reviews 'Permanent Midnight.'

Published September 18, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The saga of a heroin junkie isn't a particularly interesting one. It's got a certain train-wreck appeal -- why would a person throw his life away for a lethal drug that turns him into an incoherent idiot? -- but beyond the mysterious premise, junkie-dom is just sad and pathetic.

The ouevre of junkie flicks is, as a result, terribly predictable. Our hero has a promising future, until a dubious acquaintance introduces him to drugs. Hero becomes addict, loses job/girlfriend/family/home. Hero sinks to unfathomable depths, and just when he's bottomed out, something dreadful happens (generally involving a death or a baby). Hero goes into rehab, tells us his story and seeks redemption.

Still, the clichi has worked in a number of stand-out films in recent years -- "Trainspotting" (Scottish scam-artist junkies), "The Basketball Diaries" (teen athlete junkies), "Drugstore Cowboy" (greaser junkies), "Killing Zoe" (bank robber junkies) and "Rush" (cops as junkies) -- primarily because of interesting plot twists or truly compelling characters. Unfortunately, the latest offering in the junkie genre, "Permanent Midnight" (rich Hollywood writer as junkie), fails on both counts.

"Permanent Midnight" is based on the autobiography of Jerry Stahl, a promising writer who made ludicrous amounts of money in the early '90s scriptwriting for the TV show "Alf," and spent even more ludicrous sums on heroin. The plot revolves around Jerry (Ben Stiller), who narrates the tale of his heroin days to Kitty (sexy Maria Bello of "ER"), a fellow ex-addict he meets post-rehab. Among the adventures he relates: a $5,000 a week job writing for alien sitcom "Mr. Bobble"; the suicide of his mom; a green-card marriage to a sexy ex-pat (played by Liz Hurley); a resulting pregnancy; and the eventual loss of it all thanks to "a habit the size of Utah."

Despite the true-life basis for the film, the plot and character development are so thin that it's hard to believe anything that happens. Why, for example, is Jerry so "full of self-hatred" that he becomes an addict? Other than an insinuation about family problems, we never really learn. And why does his gorgeous British wife pay a couch-surfing junkie $3000 to marry her for a green card (Liz Hurley had no better options? Come on). And why do they then suddenly start acting like a real husband and wife, and have a baby?

Even stranger is the love story that's been slapped on top of the addiction story as a kind of narrative mechanism-cum-redemption tale. In the first 30 seconds of the movie, Kitty picks Jerry up at the fast-food joint where he is working; they retire to a tawdry hotel where he relates his tale. Occasionally, the film flashes briefly back to the hotel room where, we are to understand, they have fallen in love without ever learning each other's name (creak creak, goes the plot).

Not only is the film trying to be both a tragedy and a romance, but it's being marketed as a black comedy. The "comedy" comes in fits and starts: a few unconnected scenes with Janeane Garafolo, who plays a sardonic but doting agent; a hallucination sequence involving Mr. Chompers (imagine a violent green Alf); and an oddly misplaced scene in which Jerry's leather pants split up the butt. Sandwiched between sad-sap drug sequences and squishy hotel-room love scenes, the comic episodes fall flat.

It's a shameful waste of Ben Stiller's talent for offbeat comedy, which presumably was the reason he was chosen for the role. It couldn't have been his heroin addict shtick, which is utterly unconvincing: His vision of heroin addiction consists entirely of setting his jaw in a strange jutting grimace and staring wild-eyed and wincing and jittery at the people around him. Even when he does get to act out during the comic interludes, he still looks miserable. For that matter, he doesn't even look like he's enjoying himself on drugs -- which begs the question, why did he become an addict in the first place? The story of a junkie should at least give a sense of what drew a person to drugs in the first place: With most junkies it's not just escapism or self-hatred, and it certainly isn't the glamour of the lifestyle, but the incredible high of the drugs (something "Trainspotting" demonstrated well).

"Permanent Midnight," not surprisingly, consists primarily of scenes of Jerry shooting up and mortifying himself at work, in bed, at parties, with his dealer, even at the hospital. Certainly, this film, like most junkie films, is a great morality tale that will (and should) scare a multitude of Ben Stiller fans away from ever wanting to try heroin.

You know the heroin genre has been stretched to its limits when watching someone stick a needle in his neck in search of a vein doesn't make you wince anymore. Filmgoers are just a bit too blasi: As Jerry narrates at the beginning of "Permanent Midnight," "Heroin is like the leisure suit of the '90s." Despite the strained metaphor, the premise rings true: Addiction has gone from glamorous and strange to ridiculous and clichid. A heroin tragedy just isn't very tragic anymore -- it's simply silly.

The producers of "Permanent Midnight" must have known that they had a difficult task ahead of them, because they try out every trick in the book to make the life of a heroin addict interesting. Look! It's a talented person destroying himself with drugs! You've seen it before? Well, he'll make you laugh! That's not funny? Well, we'll toss in a heart-wrenching love story for good measure!

Perhaps if Jerry were a three-dimensional character, or the movie had focused on one plot instead of trying to do it all, "Permanent Midnight" might have been engaging. But in the end, all you see is another rich spoiled brat shoving tar up his arm, and at this point it's just too hard to care.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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