Jenny Slate is striving to show us there’s more to her than the hilarious mugging we’ve seen in Kroll Show and Parks and Recreation, more to her than the rambling silliness of “Marcel The Shell With Shoes,” more to her than her winsome appearance on Drunk History, or her vulnerable, fearless, and fun portrayal in the modern comedy classic Obvious Child. With dramas like the bittersweet Gifted and the Tribeca Film Festival entry Aardvark, Slate is striving to show us she’s a serious actress, not just an intensely endearing screwball. Sadly, not every “serious” film is worthy of her talents.
Writer-director Brian Shoaf’s feature debut stars Slate as Emily Milburton, a mousy therapist who becomes fatefully entangled in the fraternal drama of a pair of estranged brothers (Zachary Quinto and Jon Hamm). Aardvark is a two-hander where the lives of Emily and her paranoid patient Josh (Quinto) are paralleled in a twee exploration of loneliness and love. But where Josh’s storyline offers an earnest surrealism and charming misadventures informed by his pesky hallucinations, Emily’s becomes a staid tale of a bad romance turned Hallmark aisle self-discovery.
Realizing that Slate was given a co-lead role over supporting, I was initially giddy in anticipation of Aarvark. Sadly, Emily’s backstory is stitched together by jarring run-ins with awkward exes or lazy metaphors about jogging (she can’t go the distance in exercise or relationships!) Emily seems befuddled by the isolated life she’s built that’s left her adrift and alone. And I was too. Shoaf’s scraps of backstory are too little to understand who she is. But fear not, he’s got some showy speeches from men who’ve fucked her, telling us she’s remote, she’s promiscuous, reckless, and bad at her job because she’s single!
Try as she might, Slate can’t elevate the material that essentially makes Emily a lackluster and vaguely despicable imitation of Josh, whose longing for his TV star brother Craig (Hamm) leads him to believe begging bag ladies and garrulous cops are actually his brother “in character,” looking out for him. When Craig actually does surface, he doggedly ducks his brother, but is quick to bang Emily. Thankfully, this throws Hamm and Slate into some steamy love scenes, but the love story is woefully undercooked. Shoaf’s shell game of keeping Craig and Josh apart and Emily ever-chasing their reunion feels forced and juvenile, as if even he can’t feign interest in this janky love-triangle, that wonkily interweaves romance and fraternal affection.
To his credit, the first-time filmmaker concocted a curious concept, looking across the shrink’s note pad. But in execution, he seems far more interested in the brothers’ bond than Emily as a whole, and so Slate’s left on her own in chiseling out a cohesive character from sparse details. She strives but struggles, given scenes that largely force her to sit nodding while men talk at her, whether Emily is in her therapist role or on a date, on a hiking trail, in a classroom, or just existing. Still, there are moments of profound and fittingly strange beauty found in Aardvark.
As Josh debates getting on a treatment path that might end his hallucinations—and his tenuous sense of his brother’s love—he meets Hannah, a radiant young woman played by A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’s luminous Sheila Vand. Gliding along with a chill grace and easy smile, she’s so lovely she seems like a dream. Rather than the stuffy dinner dates with wine and flirtations that Emily and Craig conform to, Josh and Hannah meet at a gas station and take long walks through quiet, late-night residential roads. She shows up at his door on a whim, with a smile and a platinum blonde wig. She’s so wonderful, so accepting, so full of possibilities, but unspoken is his fear she might not be real.
Here, where Shoaf plays with the conflict between head and heart, Aardvark is at its strongest and most compelling. Sadly, when it comes to applying this same sense of compassion and curiosity to the therapist with her own struggles of emotion and reason, the script falls flat and lets down an emerging actress who deserves better.
Kristy Puchko is irked there’s not a single promotional image from this movie that features Vand OR Slate.