Having slid down the gutter and fallen through the storm drain of life, TV writer Jerry Stahl, who worked on everything from "ALF" to "thirtysomething," hit rock-bottom back in the early '90s when, running out of arm veins, he shot heroin into his neck while his baby daughter occupied herself in the car seat next to him. Miraculously, Stahl managed to dig his way out of the sewer, penning a drug-induced memoir that's part Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, part You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. And now, like a drug trip gone bad, the memoir has become a movie, starring the suddenly everywhere Ben Stiller as the suddenly nowhere Jerry Stahl. Like Stahl, Permanent Midnight goes for the jugular--ours. Unlike Stahl, it has trouble drawing blood. With so many recent movies--Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting and High Art, to name only a few--sporting monkeys on their backs, perhaps we're all ready for some rehab. Or perhaps Permanent Midnight simply doesn't know how to find a vein. First-time director David Veloz never really gets a rhythm going, unless you call detox-and-relapse a rhythm. (The Leaving Las Vegas-ish framing story keeps pulling us out of the movie.) And the script doesn't tell us anything we don't already know from as far back as 1955's The Man with the Golden Arm. If Frank Sinatra seemed an unlikely heroin addict in that movie, Ben Stiller, the Gen X Alan Alda, seems even less likely. The role needs someone who's been to hell and back--Sean Penn, perhaps.
Or Peter Greene, who plays Stahl's dark-side-of-the-moon drug connection. A longtime heroin addict himself, Greene has brought a narcotized menace to such movies as Clean, Shaven and The Usual Suspects, and his brief appearance in Permanent Midnight--including its best scene, a death-defying stunt in which Stiller and Greene hurl themselves at a skyscraper window--gives the movie a much-needed shot in the arm. Otherwise, the storyline seems strangely banal, even though it's about a guy with a $5,000/week salary and a $6,000/week habit. "Smack is like the leisure suit of the '90s," Stiller's Stahl says early on. That's the problem. Instead of injecting some life into its story, Permanent Midnight keeps trying on stuff we discarded years ago.