Brian Shoaf’s Aardvark opens in the most on-the-nose way imaginable: with a shot of—what else?—an aardvark that young Josh Norman (Jack Lanyo) is watching with particular interest as it burrows its way into its hole at a zoo. Such obviousness marks the film as a whole, right down to the grotesque chili-bowl haircut that the now grown-up Josh (Zachary Quinto) sports to immediately signal to us that we’re watching a mentally disturbed individual.
Shoaf also appears to want the precise nature of Josh’s psychosis to be kept mysterious for as long as possible, which leads Aardvark to adopt a half-hearted variation on A Beautiful Mind’s gimmicky approach to grappling with a man’s mental illness. We’re likely to deduce that the homeless woman (Dale Soules) and police officer (Jacinto Taras Riddick) that Josh sees inside of the coffee shop where he works and eventually identifies as his famous TV-actor brother Craig in disguises aren’t real. But then there’s the mysterious Hannah (Sheila Vand), who hangs around at and near the coffee shop, and who, on the surface, seems more real than those other two figures.
Aardvark treats mental illness like a kind of puzzle to be solved—a reductive approach that extends to its depiction of the skeletons in the closets of not only Josh, but also his therapist, Emily Milburton (Jenny Slate). The film curses her with a mundane case of man trouble, with Shoaf dropping hints throughout the film of her history of making bad decisions when it comes to romance. This shortcoming pops up again when she unwisely gets involved with the real Craig Norman (Jon Hamm), who’s back in town for a visit and who directly approaches Emily to ask her out on a date.
Craig, a successful and well-adjusted TV star, is in every way the opposite of the emotionally fragile and introverted Josh. At one point, Craig recounts an anecdote about a prank he played on Josh at a zoo that partially explains the significance of the film’s opening scene, implying an attempt on Shoaf’s part to simplify a mental disorder down to one inciting incident—a sign that he’s only interested in exploring such an illness on a superficial level.
According to Aardvark, Josh’s psychosis boils down to an extreme case of sibling rivalry; naturally, in Shoaf’s simplistic view, a confrontation between the two estranged brothers is all that’s needed to neatly resolve the tensions between them. Not even a last-minute reappearance of one of Josh’s hallucinations is enough to dispel the sense of psychology being shorn of complexity for the sake of easily digestible consumption.