Why do screenwriters hate therapists so much? In most cases, accuracy and verisimilitude are important to a film’s pedigree, but that’s rarely the case when dealing with licensed mental health counselors.
Psychologists in popular entertainment rarely resemble anything like their real-life counterparts — morally, legally, temperamentally. They’re either silent, judgmental clock-watchers callously cutting off clients mid-sentence by asserting “our time is up,” or, worse, they sleep with their patients at the first opportunity to do so, in encounters that hew closer to a porn writer’s fantasy than American Psychological Association tenets. For recent examples, look no further than films like Trance and This is Where I Leave You, and to the first season of American Horror Story, where Dylan McDermott’s ethically bankrupt counselor is the series’ scariest creation. (To its credit, HBO’s Big Little Lies is one of the few modern projects that gets it right.)
To this list of therapists behaving badly we can add Aardvark’s Emily Milburton, played by Jenny Slate as a rank amateur who wouldn’t be fit to counsel a toddler. Insultingly libidinous and as vulnerable as her most challenging clients, she has a constitution made of Jell-O, and she sees ethical codes as suggestions. I didn’t buy this performance, as it as written or acted, for a second, despite my ingrained fondness for Slate’s work on projects like Obvious Child and Landline. But here, like her co-stars, she’s a gifted comic actress shoehorned in a mirthless drama.
Butchery of the psychological profession aside, Aardvark means nobody harm. But it’s sluggish to the point of catatonia. I spent much of the film searching for its pulse, and I never found one.
Aardvark fundamentally concerns the unresolved trauma between siblings whose lives have taken markedly different paths. Josh Norman (Zachary Quinto in a Modish mop top) suffers from a mild but, when it manifests, vivid form of schizophrenia: He sees his brother Craig (Jon Hamm), a successful television star, in the faces of strangers he encounters in everyday life, from beseeching bag ladies to off-duty African-American cops. In Josh’s mind, Craig is “one of the great talents of his generation; he’s completely unrecognizable from role to role.” His delusions are rooted in his brother’s perceived skill as a Method actor, a gonzo idea that a Charlie Kaufman could have taken to more dizzying heights.
Craig, for his part, just resembles the everyday Jon Hamm, an actor who, like his character, made his bank on an enduring TV show. Hamm is little more than eye candy here, and he could have sleepwalked through the part. (For a more invested performance, check out his alcoholic diplomat in the savvy thriller Beirut, also opening this weekend.)
Emily is the confidant they have in common, but she’s the sort of co-dependent counselor who needs her client (Quinto) as much as he needs her, in part to angle for information about his more attractive brother, who then manifests from the shadows outside her apartment one night with a dinner invitation she can’t refuse. He’s in town, apparently, to sell his childhood home, but a fling with a terrible therapist might also be on the agenda.
We wait for a twist in the story, but the story never twists. Instead, it flatlines. I know nothing of writer-director Brian Shoaf’s personal demons from his childhood, but his debut feature has the dreary myopia of autobiography, in which buried issues are dutifully and dully unpacked, with no revelatory payoff. The title animal is shorthand for this trauma, appearing in bleary flashbacks from a pivotal moment at the zoo when the childhood Craig bullied and abandoned his brother near the aardvark pen. Yawn.
The movie’s lugubrious pacing is met with laughably on-the-nose dialogue that reads as a parody of Sundance-baiting groaners, like when Craig, explaining the “irregularly” sized coat he’s wearing, adds that, “sometimes irregular things can be just fine.” It doesn’t get more facile than when Emily, following another one of her insubstantial, boilerplate therapy sessions, concludes with, “I think we’re just about out of time” — which turns out to be the final line in the movie. It’s not meta so much as lazy, but at least it’s accurate.
AARDVARK. Director: Brian Shoaf; Cast: Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate, Jon Hamm, Sheila Vand; Distributor: Great Point Media; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Friday at most area theaters