Based on Jerry Stahl's autobiographical book of the same name, Permanent Midnight offers a close-up, startling look at the underbelly of the American Dream. At the height of his success as a television writer living in Hollywood, Stahl was earning $5,000 a week, but supporting a $6,000 habit. This well-told and solidly acted story of his rise and fall is not a pretty sight, but, as with a car wreck, it is riveting nevertheless. It is almost impossible to look away.

Stahl (Ben Stiller) says he originally went to L.A. from the East Coast to get away from drugs. But, as he also states (in an echo of Bogart's famous 'I was misinformed' line about traveling to Casablanca for the waters), 'I miscalculated.' Unable to leave his propensity for self-destructive behavior behind, Stahl's professional rise is matched by a fast, personal, downward fall.

When Permanent Midnight opens, Stahl is working at a fast-food restaurant in Phoenix as part of his rehab program. When a woman named Kitty (Maria Bello), a former druggie herself, drives through, the attraction is instantaneous. Stahl narrates his life story to her from a cheap motel room, and the film alternates between their growing romance and flashbacks from his dismal past.

Enhanced by rapid, elliptical cutting and a driving rock 'n' roll soundtrack, the film's true momentum comes from Stiller's dynamic and commanding performance. His Stahl is at once poignant and repulsive, and his portrayal of a man smart enough to know better but who is unable to help himself provides Permanent Midnight with an electric energy. This film will almost certainly be seen as a milestone in Stiller's rapidly evolving, increasingly illustrious career.

Veloz, who co-wrote Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, makes an assured directing debut. His intelligent, darkly funny script brings to life the wildly divergent aspects and characters of Stahl's L.A. existence. These range from his personal relationship with Sandra (Elizabeth Hurley), who he marries to help get her a green card and with whom he becomes emotionally and physically involved, to his professional life as a writer for a TV show featuring a life-size alien puppet, to the East L.A. housewife who provides him with his fix.

Permanent Midnight contains some hauntingly effective scenes which vividly convey Stahl's failure to come to terms with his dependency. In particular, an episode in which he drives around L.A. in search of his next score with his young baby in the car beside him is nothing short of horrifying.

Although he eventually turned his life around, it was not before Stahl lost everything he had and alienated all of those around him. Permanent Midnight is a well-produced, well-acted but grim anti-fairy tale.

--Rod Granger