The stated primary purpose of Joe Pantoliano’s second memoir, Asylum: Hollywood Tales From My Great Depression—Brain Dis-ease, Recovery, And Being My Mother’s Son is “to eliminate the shame” for anyone afraid to admit they have a mental problem and need professional help. The character actor known for roles from The Goonies to The Sopranos states that his clinical-depression diagnosis puts him in the same category as Lincoln (“That’s why Lincoln’s words made me happy. I recognized myself in them”) and “our greatest actors.” After listing famous fellow sufferers, Pantoliano says “I could feel myself in them, in their pain,” obliterating the distinction between offering himself as a relatable survivor for people with mental problems, and simple self-aggrandizement.
In spite of those putatively noble intentions, much of Asylum is stream-of-consciousness memoir, peppered with anecdotes both interesting (Pantoliano’s early industry days, being mentored by Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood) and not so much (on being cast in The Matrix: “we had only six months before we were to start filming in Australia”). Much space is devoted to bizarre comic riffs and hallucinations, like Pantoliano’s dream of a visit with Sigmund Freud (“You vanna a frankfooter?”) or his oddball choice to end the book with an open letter to the long-dead Frank Capra. Nothing, though, is odder than Pantoliano’s inadvertently creepy tale about offering his daughters $10,000 cash and a new car if they stayed drug-and-alcohol-free virgins until age 21; he offers this as a fun parental tidbit.
Pantoliano’s embrace of fantasy arguably mirrors the story he’s telling, in which a life mediated by drugs, alcohol, kleptomania, and other aspects of what he terms his “Seven Deadlies” grows increasingly hard to negotiate. But Asylum is mostly just obnoxiously full of boorish escapades that seem presented less as cautionary tales than as colorful anecdotes. Recapping Election Night 2000, Pantoliano recounts blurting out within earshot of Bill Clinton, “If [Clinton] would have kept little Billy and the twins off a navy-blue dress in the Lincoln bedroom, Gore wouldn’t have had to worry about Florida.” Not good, but Pantoliano’s fundamental loveability is vindicated by an ex-Secret Service man who approaches him much later to say Clinton thought the whole incident was “hilarious.”
Pantoliano shows little command of tone throughout: Clinically disturbed people may well be stigmatised by medical providers and intolerant relatives, but Pantoliano frothing that recognizing these things “is the last great frontier of civil rights in our country” seems ill-advised. His own book is so scattered and prone to boasting, it’s hard to take his goals at face value. A typically mixed passage finds him musing on his time as a waiter in the ’70s, a rare heterosexual among gay men: “I discovered that although I loved many of these men, I didn’t want to have sex with them… Does that make me homophobic? Who knows?” It’s hardly the most ringing endorsement of tolerance, and throughout, Asylum is similarly unsuccessful at achieving its social goals.