There's something really obnoxious about Aardvark. Maybe it's the title, which you literally have to check IMDb to understanding the meaning of. Maybe it's the script, obfuscating and senseless in equal measure. Maybe it's the direction from debut helmer Brian Shoaf, which seems to be steering its three leads — Zachary Quinto, Jon Hamm and Jenny Slate — in different directions. Maybe it's Shoaf's screenplay, which seems to have no real handle on the rules of its world.
Whatever it is, Aardvark, the dark comedy currently playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, is more annoying than it is funny. What could have been an intriguing, strange-but-provocative examination of mental illness becomes an awkward, aimless mess that meanders for 90 minutes before eventually hitting an ending that feels deeply unearned.
Slate plays Emily, a therapist (but not a doctor, she insists) who takes on a new patient: Josh, played by Quinto. Josh has a lot of issues; he's got some kind of disorder, but no one diagnosis seems to fit him. He sees hallucinations of his brother, actor Craig, played by Hamm, each time as a different "character." Because of these hallucinations, Josh is convinced Craig is one of the great actors of his generation. In reality, he seems to be more like an actor on a CSI show: talented, but fairly run-of-the-mill.
Instead of investigating what's happening to Josh more, using Emily as a conduit, Shoaf opts to have Craig seek Emily out — at night, for no real reason — and ask her out on a date. The date seems to be a spontaneous choice for Craig, and there's no other reason given for his visit. He admits he knows who she is because he looks at Josh's phone logs, but that's it. Why he's seeking her out, or why he chooses to ask out his brother's therapist, is literally never addressed.
If this sounds confusing, welcome to Aardvark! The whole movie is like this. Shoaf clearly wants some air of mystery to permeate the film, but when the answer to the central question — what is Josh and Craig's relationship? — turns out to be too pedestrian, all the strangeness in the movie fails to hold up.
There's not much else going on in Aardvark besides the ultimately pointless mystery, either. Josh goes out with a mysterious girl he seems alarmed by, while Emily reveals herself to be a deeply unethical therapist by going out with her patient's brother and lying to her patient about it. You can feel Shoaf going for unlikable-but-realistically-flawed, but he misses and winds up with overboard, irritating caricatures, and fails to convincingly direct any of them. Quinto seems to be making his own choices and thus winds up delivering the best performance, but it's hardly great compared to the rest of his body of work, because he's still working with a nonsensical script.
If I sound more frustrated with Aardvark than with your average movie, that's not accidental. Movies can be bad in many different ways, from the loathsome to the delightfully imbalanced. Aardvark isn't either of those things, but it seems to be actively trying to waste your time. It's all smoke and mirrors, and when it finally reveals its truth, the result is disappointing.
There is exactly one great joke in Aardvark, in the final therapy scene between Emily and Josh. It involves him playing with her — and the audience's — expectations, and works remarkably well. Unfortunately, by the time you get to it, you'll likely be so checked-out it will barely register.
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