This film is set apart in two ways, one for Stiller's acting ability and another on the depiction of heroin usage/addiction.
Ben Stiller never struck me as a particularly attractive or great actor, though like some actors, he appears to be typecast in a few films. I was surprised that no one mentioned Mystery Men or Reality Bites in films he has been in, and I believe he also directed the latter. Some of his trademark gestures (and yes, that jacket) appear in all his films, this one included: the stammering list of unbelievable excuses, the deadpan replies, the limber, herky jerky movements of a man who seems very awkward and unsure of his surroundings. Also, there are facets of his appearance that cannot (or are not) changed from film to film: same hair cut, same lack of facial hair, same bright smile. These repetitions tend to distract me from thinking that any of his characters are any different. In this movie, we actually get to see Ben Stiller's bare chest. We get to see him as a flawed and typical human form in addition the heroin addicts trademark overall sweaty countenance. He combines his normal akimbo mannerisms, only this time with more focus, an end to his means.
The depiction of heroin addiction is often over-dramatized, given over to dream states or eye candy special effects and often the addiction is put in the spotlight of attention, rather than the addict himself. We've seen this in movies like Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting, where there seems little remorse or suffering being taken on by the junkies, aside from those things that afflict an addict, viewed as par for the course. In Permanent Midnight, we see a different type of addict, the addict with a job, a beautiful wife, and a relatively successful range of occupations in Los Angeles. And, of course, we see him rehabilitated afterward, surviving.
The scenes are not touched up much in way of artistic appreciation, and through the awkward stages of a high person trying to meander in a sober world, I often felt compelled to fast forward because I winced for Stiller's character, I felt for him enough to not want to see him embarrassing himself so plainly. Seeing a white man in an old Caddie with his newborn daughter strapped in an infant seat trying to inject heroin into the veins in his neck, with that sweaty determination and focus, makes you see how heroin addiction and drugs in general can take over without stopping life's daily functions completely. Also, while his behavior and actions are disdained, they are tolerated, partly due to his ability to pull off being a writer. Another thing we see here that we do not always see in heroin movies: people all around Jerry Stahl wanted to help him kick heroin, which proves that he had not sunk so far as to associate strictly with other users. He skimmed the surface of two worlds.
While the movie ends with a ray of hope, it also ends the same way it started, with biting sarcasm: (paraphrased) When people ask me about the hardest part of heroin addiction, I say appearing on Maury. Jerry Stahl's story is more real (in a sense, as most people cannot afford $6,000 weekly heroin addictions), and therefore more intimidating, because the film doesn't lean too far in either direction with regard to an opinion on drug addiction. Still, he enters rehab, for reasons still a bit cloudy to me, and deals with the world as a sober man, confined to the decisions of his past.
It's easy to make movies using heroin as the only stimulus for the action, to make all the characters OD or undergo dramatic changes that cripple or separate themselves from the real world forever. It's a little harder to make one where no one dies and therefore there is no thundering suspense we seem to need these days. This film, I'd say, does the job well.