Josh (Zachary Quinto) is a troubled man living in the shadow of his brother. After experiencing a series of hallucinations involving his brother Craig (Jon Hamm) – an actor, and the star of a popular TV drama – Josh places himself in the care of Emily (Jenny Slate), a young therapist. Emily is forced to wade deeper and deeper into Josh’s imaginary world and forms her own obsession with his famous brother.
Near the end of Aardvark, Josh (Zachary Quinto) tells his therapist Emily (Jenny Slate) a joke. He informs her that she couldn’t have been sleeping with TV star Craig (Jon Hamm) as there is no Craig and that Josh has been both the whole time. Upon hearing this Emily sobs. Josh relents that it was just a joke, acknowledging it was a poor one. Emily’s mental state, up to this point, has never been called into question nor is Josh the kind of person to pull jokes of any sort; he is quite the serious fellow. The audience is left wondering the point of that sequence. That scene and the movie overall does not have one.
Emily is a therapist, working out of a small office in her home. She sees a handful of patients every week, with Josh Norman being her newest charge. He switches subjects to avoid discussing his parents or his relationship with his brother, Craig. He also recently stopped taking his medications. Sensing that Josh is holding back, Emily does some research to better approach her time with him. Meanwhile, Josh grows impatient with his job at a coffee shop. Craig is back in town to handle the details of the sale of their childhood home. Emily and Craig begin to see each other after checks on his brother’s welfare. Josh also meets a sweet woman, and they start taking long walks at night together. Is this woman real? Can Emily get through Josh’s walls? Will her relationship with Craig sour the therapy?
Brian Shoaf’s feature-length writing and directing debut is missing 30 minutes of plot and characterization. As part of her research to help Josh better, Emily visits Don (Stephen Schnetzer). He is not excited to see her and tells her flat out that “…hurts me to see you.” There are some contextual clues that Emily and Don had a fling at some point in the past and it did not end well. Who is he? Her former professor? A colleague and things got out of hand? Is he married, so the affair was secretive? Answers to these questions never come and given the most helpful advice offered to Emily is that Josh does not have schizophrenia, although several other possibilities remain, the scene in question only wastes the audience’s time.
“Emily is a therapist, working out of a small office in her home with a handful of patients…”
Editing it out might be the easiest solution, but it isn’t the right one. The audience knows so little about Emily, despite her and Josh having the same amount of screentime, thus establishing more about Don, in a dinner conversation she has with Craig, would double the amount of information the viewer receives about her. This would allow them to be more invested and understand her foibles and assets much better. We only see Emily’s sessions with Josh, so her style of therapy, which is changing to better suit him, and empathy towards others is told not shown. Clocking in at exactly an hour and a half, Aardvark isn’t exactly pressed for time, so there is no reason to withhold so much about the characters.
The odd writing stems to the title as well. Aardvark harkens back to a zoo trip the brothers took when they were kids. Each remembers it differently and that is all the duality the movie can muster between the interesting title animal and the peculiar personality of Josh. The synopsis on IMDb suggests a deeper connection than present in the movie proper.
Sadly, if you aren’t named Josh in this movie, you get little, if any, development. Don never comes back, so, again, why is that scene included? Craig gets it the worst, though. His big hit show was (recently?) canceled and he is trying to find an intriguing new project. He likes Emily because… she’s cute, I suppose. He avoids seeing Josh because he doesn’t want to interfere in Josh’s life. There you go, two of the three leads summed up in tiny paragraphs. These roles, based on how they are written, don’t come across as human, but as one-dimensional characters written in a screenplay; they aspire to be paper thin.
The story doesn’t require anything too flashy from a directing standpoint, and since the writing does largely avoid big, showy confrontations that almost never actually happen in real life, the in-the-moment style grounds the story in reality. While the camera set-ups are pretty basic, nothing beyond medium or tight close-ups, Shoaf does juggle the multiple storylines well. They flow in and out of each other well, with a clear timeline, which allows the audience to follow parallel actions easily. Craig and Jenny are on their first date, sort of, while Josh is taking his first-night walk with Hannah (Sheila Vand) and the movie crosscuts where each couple is in the night. This lets the audience understand how each person approaches the world, the others in it, with ease.
“Clocking in at exactly an hour and a half, Aardvark isn’t exactly pressed for time…”
Slate is gaining traction in Hollywood, with good reason. She was quite good in Gifted, the underrated 2017 Marc Webb/Chris Evans drama, and here she shows off a stunning range. She ably carries off the character who gets in over her head. She is so good that her lack of characterization didn’t dawn upon me until the movie was over. Zachary Quinto is also excellent, coming across as empathetic and interesting, even when Josh says off-putting things.
Vand radiates warmth and love with just a look. Her compassion for the oft-misunderstood Josh and what she gets out of these walks is never in question, despite the writing being shallow. Hamm is astounding here, as the caring but frustrated Craig. He and Slate share excellent chemistry, and he wrings sympathy from a character that is at the whim of someone else, never an autonomous person.
Aardvark is not without some merit. The actors all do credible jobs in their underwritten roles, and the directing style suits the dramatic nature of the story. But the awkward, stiff writing and lack of characterization make all that effort pointless.
Aardvark (2018) Directed by Brian Shoaf. Written by Brian Shoaf. Starring Jenny Slate, Zachary Quinto, Jon Hamm, Sheila Vand, Stephen Schnetzer. Aardvark