Leon Worden

Lights out for 'Permanent Midnight'

By Leon Worden
Friday, October 2, 1998

wanted to like "Permanent Midnight." I mean, I really wanted to like it. Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up. The New York Times gave it a nice review when it opened there two weeks ago.

I wanted to like it because the writer and director is an old high school buddy. "Permanent Midnight" is the directorial debut for David Veloz, who played clarinet in the Hart High band while I was playing the saxophone. Dave went on to a lucrative career in show business and I, well, I write for Escape.

You probably know Dave's parents if you're involved in local charitable activities. His mom is Roberta Veloz, reigning SCV Woman of the Year. His dad is Tom Veloz, a former Man of the Year and big-time friend of worthy causes.

Anyway. Dave's last credit was for the 1994 Oliver Stone shocker, "Natural Born Killers." Dave was the lead screenwriter. Bob Dole made a big stink about the movie because it glorified violence. Bob Dole probably never saw it. It didn't glorify violence. It demonized the glorification of violence.

I think NBK is one of the 10 best films in the last 20 years, so I suppose you should take that into consideration when I tell you I think Siskel and Ebert are wrong about "Permanent Midnight."

Dave's new film is based on the autobiography of Jerry Stahl, a writer from Pittsburgh who came to Los Angeles and made it big. Stahl wrote for shows like "thirtysomething" and "Alf" until his heroin addiction got the better of him.

"Permanent Midnight" does a good job of showing how easy it is for a struggling writer from back east to come to L.A., get mixed up with the wrong crowd and slowly slide down the slippery slope into a drug-induced oblivion. But therein lies the problem. There isn't anything to distinguish it from any other movie about a struggling writer from back east who comes to L.A., gets mixed up with the wrong crowd and slowly slides down the slippery slope into a drug-induced oblivion.

If that's all you want to see, the film is fine. I was looking for something more — a twist here, a turn there — and I didn't find it. I didn't expect the surrealism of NBK, but I guess I wanted a little bit of the intensity.

Siskel, Ebert and the rest were impressed with Ben Stiller's performance as Stahl. I can't argue with that. Stiller's gradual metamorphosis from an occasional user of recreational drugs to a hard-core smack fiend is well executed and believable, both in delivery and facial expressions. But I wasn't watching the film for the acting. I was watching for the story.

It's billed as a drama-comedy, or "dramedy." It's dramatic but not riveting. There are a few funny lines, but not enough to make it a comedy. It isn't dark enough to be sinister. The sex isn't gratuitous enough for it to be sexy. It isn't depressing enough to be depressing. It isn't powerful enough to be a wake-up call for drug abusers — something the director seems to have intended.

Maybe it's the basic framework of the story that didn't work for me. Writing in flashback is extremely difficult. When you start at point B and spend a lot of time talking about what happened at point A, you run the risk of gambling away the all-important element of surprise.

The film opens with Stahl (Stiller) in 90-day rehab, so you know right away that the main character had a drug problem. You also know where you're going to end up: Stahl is going to get clean. You don't need to spend a lot of time showing the audience how Stahl became an addict. You can cover the ground quickly and move on with the rest of the story. Unfortunately, how Stahl became an addict is the rest of the story.

There is one particularly good scene, where a hyped-up Stahl and his supplier (Peter Greene) hurl their bodies repeatedly against a high-rise picture window. But subplots are undeveloped. I don't understand what the sitcom star (Cheryl Ladd) sees in Stahl to make her want to give him a chance. Some cute exchanges between Stahl and his literary agent (Janeane Garofalo) could have evolved into something but don't. Stahl's eventual arrest is predictable and cliche, coming at the worst possible time, with a child in the car.

I haven't read the book, so I don't know how closely Dave's screenplay follows the original. You figure the author of the book may have had some influence, since the real Stahl appears in a cameo role as a doctor in the film. I could have lived with more artistic license.

"Permanent Midnight" is rated R for sex, drugs and language. It hasn't opened in local theaters yet.

    Leon Worden is The Signal's special sections editor.

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