“Sometimes irregular things can be just fine,” Zachary Quinto’s Josh Norman says to his date who may or may not be real. For first-time writer-director Brian Shoaf, he clearly wants this to ring true. Shoaf’s debut Aardvark is a strange, frustrating film that always seems on the precipice of becoming something greater, letting mystery seep into every moment with the assumed promise that there is more than meets the eye. Yet through Shoaf’s bland writing that wastes an excellent cast, sometimes irregular things can just be flat out boring.
Quinto’s Josh is early on said to “have a condition.” Aardvark never specifies what exactly that condition is, but it does cause him to hallucinate people that aren’t there. Most of the time, Josh believes these people – say a homeless woman or a police officer – are his famous actor brother Craig (Jon Hamm), deep in a role coming to visit him. Josh hasn’t seen his brother in years, and in his mind, it might just be easier for Craig to come to him under a disguise, rather than see him face-to-face.
Josh’s new therapist Emily (Jenny Slate) is bad at her job, silently listening to her clients without providing much help. Aardvark makes it clear that Emily also isn’t that great with her romantic relationships, as we meet one former boyfriend that wants to get back together, and another who has nothing but animosity towards her. Her most questionable relationship foible comes when Craig pops up at her home office in the middle of the night. Craig asks Emily out on a date, and the two begin their own relationship. At the same time, Josh meets a woman (Sheila Vand) who keeps appearing after he’s seen one of his hallucinations. This brings her reality into question, of course, or she could just be the start of a promising new relationship.
Shoaf’s screenplay hints at ideas that he never follows up with any interest, turning Aardvark into a fairly empty narrative. The most damning of these ideas is Josh’s condition, which could be anything from extreme schizophrenia to just sibling rivalry. The first time Josh sees his “brother,” he appears as a homeless woman. As ridiculous as this is, it’s not quite clear if Aardvark is just an absurd comedy where this could be reality. The further Aardvark goes, the murkier this diagnosis becomes, and it’s never certain what Shoaf is trying to say about mental illness. Yet Aardvark does come off as if it doesn’t matter what illness Josh has, crazy is crazy and that’s all that matters.
Aardvark’s characters are relatively flippant, with Emily not thinking her actions through, and Craig’s seeming disinterest in the problems of his brother, and that comes through in Shoaf’s story. Shoaf will make a curious decision, only to never show care about it again. What begins at a potentially trippy dark comedy becomes a fairly standard, simplistic family drama, with elements of both dripping into each other.
Despite its disappointing plot, Aardvark does get some decent performances from its actors. Hamm reminds just how much he can do simply through performance and with few words, while it’s great to see Slate trying drama without any comedy to fall back on. Quinto, however, doesn’t do Aardvark any favors, as his mid-2000s Pete Wentz hairstyle and undefined unusual mannerisms only point out the troubling problems at the center of Aardvark.
Aardvark begins with ostensibly unique takes on psychology, familial drama and professional acting, yet they all get lost in Shoaf’s quagmire of a script. Irregularity can be compelling, but a promising start followed by a lack of imagination can be damning.