The rarefied world of the drug addict, like that of the thief, gambler or wartime soldier, is a professional existence whose peculiar realities Hollywood can only pantomime. Based on Jerry Stahl's to-hell-and-back memoir of the same title, Permanent Midnight follows a young TV writer's terrified flight from self-discovery into the humiliating free fall of heroin addiction.

It's not a smooth descent – not for the protagonist and not for the film. Director-screenwriter David Veloz's script begins as an exhilarating jackknife into self-annihilation only to settle down, during its last third, into an old-fashioned fable about finding parental redemption. Ultimately, it is Veloz's excellent cast, led by Ben Stiller as Stahl, that rescues the picture from the noose of feel-good cliches, making it a classic example of the going up being worth the coming down (or in this case, maybe it's the other way around).

Veloz picks up from Stahl's book as the author is about to exit an Arizona rehab center. On his way out, Jerry shacks up in a motel with another recovered addict (Maria Bello); the pressure to perform sex without drugs panics Stahl, and he soon flashes back on what brought him to the desert. (This Veloz setup is an unfortunate interview-with-the-vampire gambit, with Bello here mainly to prod the narrator along with hokey “Then what did you do?” lines.)

What landed Jerry there, of course, was Hollywood and the hollow affluence its money machine conferred upon him. Whatever dreams he'd nursed of becoming a novelist quickly migrated, along with his self-respect, to the back seat of his Cadillac and then into its trunk once he started getting big-league gigs on shows like ALF and Moonlighting. (The film discreetly fictionalizes the names of these programs, as well as the personalities associated with them.) In an industry where the mean is always golden and the dicey remains suspect, Stahl found that banality not only paid the bills but allowed him to impersonate an upwardly mobile, happily married man.

Although it opens in Arizona, the film truly begins with a diving aerial shot over Santa Monica Beach, with Jerry's voice-over proclaiming that he came to L.A. in order to get away from drugs. That ambition is so baldly delusional that our morbid curiosity demands to know what other mirages shimmer inside Jerry's head. The film is quick to reveal them, as we watch this lifelong drug abuser move from medicine-cabinet bandit to – following his mother's suicide – full-blown, smack-slamming junkie. While the book is justly famous for its author's frank disclosure of what prodigious violence he was capable of inflicting on himself, Veloz chooses to focus more on the humiliating comedy of Jerry's professional rise and fall. He sits us down in studio offices to witness him reluctantly slinking from one Hollywood “idea” meeting to the next, a bit more stoned in each successive one. By the time he appears before a bigtime sitcom star and producer, Jerry has devolved into a stringless marionette in a green polyester pimp suit.

What amazes us is what amazed Stahl: Hollywood's willingness to give him another chance – or rather, its unwillingness to look for a replacement who perhaps, unlike Stahl, didn't have a list of credits. This may not be exactly terra nova, but Veloz brings a freshness to the often-lampooned entertainment industry, displaying an attentive ear for its lies and a sharp eye for the stone-and-wood architecture of Hollywood offices and pads, yet knowing when to rein everything in before these scenes lapse into burlesque.

For all the knowing references to Hollywood's power grids, Veloz's most heartbreaking moment occurs nowhere near CAA, ABC or MGM, but on an RTD bus, when a cleaned-up, forlorn Jerry watches a group of young passengers pass around a joint. Stiller's face registers the disdain and longing that are battling for his soul; the look in his eyes is that of a man caught in a rundown between an untenable past and an impossible future.

Veloz's debut film is by no means perfect. While Stahl's book was wordy and lugubriously hip (full of preemptive self-loathing exhaled in a voice that was part Alexander Portnoy, part Sergeant Rock), Veloz's interpretation is lighter on the ear and, since this is a film, he has compressed and deleted material to squeeze Stahl's story into a 90-minute girdle. What you gain is a dramatically sustainable film; what you lose are Stahl's moments of scalding clarity, and the appalling cycle of failed attempts at recovery followed by prolonged relapses that made his existence live up to his book's title. Veloz splits the difference and winds up with a film truly rare in that it could gain from the addition of more scenes.

This downside becomes apparent two-thirds in, when Permanent Midnight suddenly seems to lose both its elasticity and its purpose – as Veloz changes the implied inspiration for Stahl's recovery from the surreal chaos of the L.A. riots to the love for his young daughter. While no one can question this love, in the book it mostly served to italicize Stahl's pathetic condition. Here, it comes off as predictable and even maudlin, like one of those mechanically optimistic denouements on Lifetime channel specials. It is here that the book's permanent sneer vanishes, replaced by a paternal grin.

That grin is made infinitely more acceptable, however, by Veloz's committed cast. Stiller, sometimes appearing runtish and goaty, other times heroic and larger than life, can turn a scene on its head with the drop of his jaw. If Tom Hanks has become both Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon, Ben Stiller has, within the past year, emerged as an ethnic version of the WASP jokers Hanks played 14 years ago, which is no small accomplishment.

As Sandra, the green-card British TV associate producer Jerry weds for money but with whom he ends up forming a more or less loving marriage, Elizabeth Hurley exudes her best Jackie Bisset cool. Her quinine wit and brunette vulnerability prevent her character from becoming just another British accent in heels. And amid fine sketch performances from Owen Wilson and Janeane Garofalo, the film's strongest support comes from Peter Greene as the ex-con Gus, a frightening, elemental apparition who materializes in a methadone-clinic parking lot to lure Jerry away from his halfhearted stab at sobriety and to the delirious highs of crack. Watching Greene's demented face appear in Jerry's car window – and later, listening to him pontificate in a diner – reminds us of the jolt we felt upon seeing Lee Marvin or Michael Madsen on the screen for the first time.

In what is bound to become the film's best-remembered scene, Gus suddenly leaps from the floor of a high-rise office under construction as if into thin air, only to bounce off its plate-glass window. He coaxes timid Jerry into joining him, and soon the two are testing the buckling window and the mad courage of their high. More than anything, this image of men, glass and sky captures the seductive rush of narcotics and the midnight sun they promise.

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