Brian Shoaf’s directorial debut Aardvark has all the ingredients for a competent drama about family, but it’s themes get lost in the character’s perspectives.
As a film buff, I am drawn into narratives that use the main character’s perspective to tell their own story instead of using other characters to convey the events from their perspective. The challenge with these types of stories is that it requires the surrounding ideas to be as strong as the central idea.
First-time writer-director Brian Shoaf (Breakup at a Wedding) has assembled a strong cast, especially in Zachary Quinto (Star Trek), who plays Josh Norman. We establish early on that Josh lives in a world in which his successful brother, Craig (Jon Hamm, Beirut), randomly appears, but completely in costume so that he blends into the Josh’s world. As such, Josh believes these random encounters are real enough that he needs to seek psychiatric help, in the form of Emily (Jenny Slate, Gifted).
Each of the three characters revolve around one another, not necessarily needing each other. But like an aardvark that needs to burrow to protect its young, Josh claws just enough to draw attention. This is the strength in Shoaf’s script: you believe Josh’s hallucinations just enough to be interested in his story. The struggle is connecting it with the rest of the characters. Or even a coherent story.
Though I thought she gave a strong performance, Ms. Slate seemed off, if because she was trapped between the two brothers because of Josh’s inadequacies. And instead of focusing her energies on one or the other, the balancing act sapped her energy. There’s a line in the film about Craig being typecast when they speak about his ‘Law & Order’-esque television show. Jon Hamm was effective in his role because he plays drama so well, but his take was on the order of his ‘Mad Men’ character. It felt rote.
Shoaf tries to anchor Josh’s reality with a love interest in the form of Hannah, played by Sheila Vand. It comes across as cliché because she’s the gorgeous lady trying to lull Josh into a false sense of security throughout most of the movie. I understood that it grounded Josh’s reality a bit more, but it didn’t improve his perspective. Like the aardvark, he’s a roaming creature looking for the prey in the rocky fields.
The struggle to find common ground results in violent attack perpetrated on Josh. In a moment of brilliance, as Josh tries to distance himself from Emily, he’s wearing a sweater with an explosive pattern that radiates multiple colors, symbolizing the explosive release that Josh lays on Emily. Mr. Quinto held no quarter and Ms. Slate bore the concussive nature of the verbal lashing.
In an equally powerful scene, the two brothers reunite. At first, it is awkward and it’s a moment where Emily is a passive observer as we hear the two brothers talking. She picks a moment to come back into the picture and she offers her professional opinion on the situation. Shoaf uses a flashback to convey the emotionalism of the two brother’s reuniting,intercutting it with the modern reunion. It is perhaps the most perfect scene in the entire film.
It’s too bad the road to that moment was so uneven.
Now in theaters, Aardvark is rated PG-13 by the MPAA.