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.
Supposedly none of the main characters in The Clapper are meant to be mentally disturbed. But watching Eddie Krumble (Ed Helms), his best friend, Chris Plork (Tracy Morgan), and many of the other leads in Dito Montiel’s latest film, one would be forgiven for assuming that everyone had one or two screws loose. Eddie and Chris are both “clappers”: actors paid to appear on infomercials as audience members to either clap or ask questions on cue. In short, they’re classic cases of struggling actors forced to take on the oddest of jobs in order to make ends meet in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood. These are the kinds of characters Montiel might have housed in a context of working-class realism earlier in his career with films like A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. In The Clapper, though, the filmmaker—adapting his own 2007 novel, Eddie Krumble Is the Clapper—aims for comedy, and, to put it mildly, he turns out to have no particular gift for it.
Perhaps the blubbering inarticulacy of the dialogue that sputters out of his characters’ mouths might have worked in a more serious context, but in this ostensibly more lighthearted environment, Montiel has directed his actors to overplay their parts in ways that makes everyone come off as whimsical cartoons. Rarely does anyone’s behavior here feel in any way tied to authentic human experience, only to Montiel’s fatally leaden comic touch.
Worse is the film’s utter toothlessness when it tries to become a showbiz satire, with a Jay Leno-like talk-show host, Jayme Stillerman (Russell Peters), turning Eddie into a national figure of mockery when he spearheads a campaign to try to find him and bring him on his show. The problem isn’t just that satirizing a late-night talk-show host’s condescension feels about a decade past its sell-by date. Montiel thinks he’s making a plea for such people like Eddie Krumble to be seen as human beings rather than objects of derision, but it’s difficult to take his attempts at evoking pathos for these people seriously when they’re depicted so ridiculously in the first place.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 19—30.