AARDVARK (Directed by Brian Shoaf, 89 minutes, 2018, USA)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Aardvark is the feature length debut of writer/director Brian Shoaf, and features an intriguing ensemble cast starring Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate, Jon Hamm and Sheila Vand. Ostensibly, Aardvark is a “thriller” that tackles one man’s struggle with mental illness and the ghosts that haunt him. Aardvark splits its narrative between Josh (Quinto), a troubled young schizophrenic trying to get his life on the right track, and Emily (Jenny Slate), his licensed clinical social worker.
As the film begins Josh has a new job, is back on his meds and has just started seeing Emily. Josh is haunted by his troubled childhood and his older actor brother Craig who appears to him as an apparition in different guises. Craig first appears to Josh as an old bag lady, letting him know he is back in town and again as an African American police officer who eggs him into stealing a bike. When the story moves to Emily, we see she is kind of a mess herself as we witness her quit her book club over a physical altercation and the precarious relationships she has with her exes. The film further pushes the veil of reality and delusion as Jon Hamm shows up on Emily’s doorstep one night claiming to be Josh’s actual older brother Craig just in from Hollywood. He refuses to see Josh whom he supports financially yet begins a physical relationship with the therapist. It is up to the audience to figure out what is real and what is in the heads of our two protagonists.
Quinto is truly astounding in the role Josh and manages to portray schizophrenia with an empathy that is rarely afforded to the illness on film. Having known someone that struggled with schizophrenia personally, Quinto is spot on with his take and the film could have vastly benefitted from dropping the twists and fake outs to really explore this trio of damaged people and their relationships. Jon Hamm also turns in a very emotional performance that feels almost wasted on the story. The director seems to expend more creative energy trying to pull a Shyamalan than actually exploring what makes these characters tick. Shoaf builds to an odd crescendo and then mocks his audience for finally taking the leap with him. It’s an audacious move that brings the third act to a grinding halt and really had me wondering what the director was attempting to accomplish. Between the narrative issues and Jenny Slate’s bumbling performance, even Quinto and Hamm can’t rescue the film that limps past the finish line to give a rather safe and saccharine resolution for its characters. Still that being said, Aardvark is worth checking out for Quinto’s amazing performance.