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Hollywood Babble On

For better or worse, the confessional memoir has become the most popular literary form of our time, prompting ballplayers, Irish bartenders, prosecuting attorneys and mothers of quadruplets everywhere to lay bare their deepest thoughts and secrets, all based on the presumption that their miserable lives are more interesting than anyone else's miserable lives. Not surprisingly, the entertainment-industry memoir is the hottest variant of the genre, particularly if it's stuffed cover to cover with sex, drugs, and celebrities with sensationally bad habits. Prime example: Carrie Fisher--Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds's kid--wasn't much of an actress, but she sure could cook as a smart-ass Hollywood tattletale.

Can't bother to read? Not to worry. The movie version is usually en route to a multiplex near you.

Enter Permanent Midnight. Adapted from a memoir of the same title, which was written by a guy named Jerry Stahl, it's a guided tour through the Los Angeles television studios by day, various drug dens by night and its protagonist's troubled skull all of the time. To hear him tell it, Stahl was another ineffably cool, absolutely brilliant New York writer who in the Eighties stooped to conquer the Hollywood philistines, writing TV scripts for shows such as ALF, Moonlighting and, later, Twin Peaks. He spent even more time scoring heroin and coke. While making $5,000 a week, he was blowing $6,000 on drugs--not very good arithmetic for a genius. Still, he survived to tell the tale, whether we're in the mood to hear it or not.

It's all about his absurd "green card" marriage to a British beauty (played by Elizabeth Hurley) with whom he had a child, his obsessive drug-world friends (played by Owen Wilson and Peter Greene), the assorted TV dopes who interrupt his pursuit of dope, his self-destructive urges and, inevitably, the squandering and regeneration of a great talent. In other words, it's a therapeutic tell-all that its author parlayed into a medium-sized bestseller that would never have been published had he not worked so hard at living the lurid details.

Director-writer David Veloz, who was one of three co-writers on Natural Born Killers (1994), has made of this harrowing, bitterly funny autobiography a most peculiar movie--part tragedy, part romance, part hipster's delight. Jerry may be an arrogant, self-absorbed lout, but he's our arrogant, self-absorbed lout, the film tells us. So let's not get too down on him, okay?

A desiccated Ben Stiller (who dropped thirty pounds for the role) plays Stahl as a cynical sharpie decked out in aviator shades and skin-tight black leather, forever ready with a quip darker than anyone else's quip. "I had to sleep my way to the middle," he cracks to a friend. Explaining the odd contrast of his habits, this Jerry says: "I was an L.A. junkie. I'd shoot heroin, then jog five miles to stay fit."

You recognize the tone. It's the acerbic, world-weary one of a man who just knows he's superior to all the frauds, squares and dumbbells in his orbit but who--tragically hip!--can't stop wasting his life away. So Jerry shoots up in the john next to the delivery room as his wife is giving birth. He forgets the producer's name amid a botched job interview. He gets whacked with a pal, and they hurl themselves again and again against an office window high up in a skyscraper. Desperate to score at 4 a.m., he's got his infant daughter in the car seat next to him when the police bust him.

"Why shoot heroin?" our Jerry asks. "So I can get up in the morning and shave." Neither the overrated patron saint of junk, William Burroughs, nor the smacked-out Scottish punks of Trainspotting could say it with more magnetic ambiguity. And the character of Jerry Stahl is nothing if not ambiguous. His self-loathing is matched only by his self-aggrandizement, and both are coated in a glaze of black humor. So whenever this cautionary tale threatens to make a stumbling, shameful fool of its principal, the moviemakers quickly turn him into the witty, vaguely self-righteous anti-hero who's got the balls to snort and tell, smoke and tell, shoot and tell.

By the way, that's the real Jerry Stahl in the fleeting role of Dr. Murphy, the cynic who fills Stiller in on the odds against successful rehab.

For Stiller, late of Flirting With Disaster and The Zero Effect, Permanent Midnight provides plenty of room to emote. When you're gobbling Percodans by the fistful in one scene, scrubbing your dead mother's blood off the kitchen floor in the next, and recalling the fateful missteps of your life to a pretty stranger (Maria Bello) in a cheap motel room in yet another, you've got latitude. Stiller takes such good advantage of it that we almost come to like his Jerry. But this postcard from the edge features an egotist's huge signature at the bottom. Having made the talk-show rounds once junkiedom elevated him to celebrity status, Jerry tells us that as awful as a drug jones at three in the morning can be, it's no worse than sitting through a potluck supper at the local PTA. Once the hip social revolutionist, always the hip social revolutionist.

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