Jerry Stahl makes no excuses and pulls no punches in Permanent Midnight, his sardonic account of his frantic days and desperate nights as a highly paid tv scriptwriter with an impossibly expensive drug habit. The best thing about the riveting film based on Stahl's autobiography is its refusal to blunt the sharp edges of its source material. Much like the real-life Stahl did in his 1995 book, the on-screen Stahl played by Ben Stiller frankly admits that diving into the Hollywood fast lane didn't drive him toward self-destruction. Making more money simply allowed him the opportunity to buy more drugs, more often. Success, he claims, brought out the worst in him.
Most of Permanent Midnight is presented in extended flashbacks. Stahl, almost 92 days into recovery, meets a beautiful stranger (Maria Bello of E.R.) who spots him right away as an ex-junkie. (It takes one to know one: She's been clean for seven years.) They quickly retreat to a low-rent hotel room, where, during a marathon of lusty sex and candid confession, Stahl spins his bleakly funny tale.
Shortly after moving from New York to L.A., Stahl makes his first big score: He's handsomely paid to marry Sandra (Elizabeth Hurley), a Brit who needs a green card to keep working as a mid-level tv executive. Thanks to Sandra, Stahl gets a job as staff writer on a sci-fi sitcom that looks and sounds a lot like Alf. (The real Stahl actually was a writer for Alf during the depths of his drug dependency, which may explain a lot about that show.) Pretty soon, he's making $5,000 a week. Unfortunately, he's spending $6,000 on heroin.
Writer-director David Veloz will never be accused of glamorizing heroin chic in Permanent Midnight. Stahl becomes increasingly unstable as his habit worsens - at one point, he jams a needle into his neck because he just can't wait to get high any other way - and his script pitches turn into incomprehensible riffs that link Nosferatu and The Patty Duke Show. He becomes dangerously careless in his risk-taking, and pathetically inattentive to the reactions of others. Everything not directly related to getting and using drugs becomes an annoying distraction, and his crankiness barely subsides even after the soothing skag is in his veins. Stiller's fearless performance makes it painfully and graphically clear that being a junkie is an exhausting full-time job. Maintaining a sense of humor doesn't make it any easier.