It’s not a comedy, but you’ll laugh out loud at Aardvark, which might otherwise be titled Jenny Slate, Jon Hamm, and Zachary Quinto Need Paychecks. The feature debut of writer-director Brian Shoaf has a tagline that says “the aardvark has evolved to be one of a kind;” an analogy is made to one of its main characters, who is mentally ill. In this case, “one of a kind” is not a good thing
Slate tries to stretch as Emily, a therapist who’s apparently had so many boyfriends we must see her encounter two exes well before the film is half over. One of her patients is Josh (Quinto). Wearing a plastered-down, crazy-person hairstyle, Josh is volatile and blames his upset on his brother, Craig (Hamm), coming into town after not being around for 15 years. He hasn’t yet seen Craig, but he has: His brother is an actor, and Josh believes he is able to take the form of the various people he runs into, including a homeless woman. Admittedly, this encounter is just about the only scene in the movie that works, with a creepiness achieved once the vagrant (Dale Soules) stops her fast talk and twitching and Shoaf zooms in on her face as Josh thinks he sees Craig.
Josh is, as two characters more or less say, “schizophrenic or bipolar or whatever.” Clearly, Shoaf doesn’t take the subject very seriously, choosing to have others talk about Josh as broadly loony tunes instead of having a specific affliction. This renders the script’s intended point that mental illness makes a person special even more suspect. But one person in Aardvark does think Josh is special: Hannah (Sheila Vand) is a lovely lass who stops in at the coffee shop where he works during her nightly walk. After about 30 seconds of stilted conversation, Josh asks if he can go walking with her. She enthusiastically says yes. And when they do walk and he confesses that he once had a psychotic episode and was hospitalized with restraints, her reaction is even more unlikely: Kiss me! Apparently, Hannah is extremely trusting.
Aardvark is painfully aimless with occasionally odd camerawork and ridiculous dialogue. (Maybe it’s just me, but this doesn’t seem like the type of thing that anyone would really say, much less shout: “He took clowning in Europe, did you know that? He has amazing control over his body!”) Just as absurd are the slo-mo appearances of the film’s spirit animal, usually accompanied by a flashback of Craig and Josh as kids. It’s all as pointless as Emily’s therapy.
No one in the cast turns in a terrible performance, but it’s hard to look good with material like this. Hamm does at times phone it in; Quinto, however, who also produced, easily comes across as disturbed. It’s impossible to judge Slate on her first dramatic role, especially when she’s asked to appear defiant by doling out commands such as “Step. Aside!” The film may try to talk about family and connection and how people relate to the schizophrenic (or whatever). But the result is such a disaster that actual aardvarks should be ashamed.
Aardvark opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.