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FILM-AARDVARK-REVIEW

Jon Hamm, right, and Zachary Quinto play estranged brothers in “Aardvark.” 

As a snapshot of profound mental illness - personified by Zachary Quinto, as a schizophrenic man named Josh - "Aardvark" feels both authentic and sensitive. (Given the subject matter, "entertaining" is not even in the running, although the feature debut of writer-director Brian Shoaf is eminently watchable.)

As something deeper than that snapshot, however - an exploration, perhaps, of the relationship between Josh and his estranged brother Craig (Jon Hamm) - the film feels stinting, as if there's more story somewhere that just hasn't been dished out.

The film is anchored by three solid performances: Quinto plays a man who can't tell reality from his hallucinations and who imagines that Craig, a successful TV actor, secretly visits him in "character" - one day an old homeless woman, the next a policeman. Hamm is the slumming Hollywood celeb, a glib golden boy who has returned to his home town, where he subsidizes Josh's expenses, to sell the house they grew up in.

Jenny Slate is Josh's new therapist, Emily, a licensed clinical social worker who is used to dealing with garden-variety stress and anxiety. She's clearly in over her head with Josh, who, as the film opens, has gone off his meds.

Complicating matters is the fact that, after a visit to check up on his brother, Craig and Emily have started sleeping together. The problematic ethics of this are only glancingly acknowledged, when Emily - who has had at least two bad breakups that we know of - says, in an understated allusion to her love life, "I'm sorry. I don't make very good decisions in that way."

At first, "Aardvark" hints that there is something more than meets the eye here. Questions - about the severity of Josh's condition, about the nature of his relationship with Craig and the significance of the aardvark, an animal that appears in grainy flashbacks - linger, unanswered, in the air. Until, that is, it becomes clear that the situation is exactly as we imagine it to be, and that the sense of mystery that Shoaf has spent so much energy weaving is a red herring. Josh is sick. And Craig feels shame and guilt.

Only one ambiguity ultimately remains unresolved (well, aside from that aardvark, the symbolism of which Shoaf leaves largely to your imagination). That's the character of Hannah (Sheila Vand), a young woman who meets Josh one night and strikes up a conversation with him, popping in and out of the story, like, quite literally, the woman of his dreams.

Is Hannah someone who really connects with Josh and whose unconditional acceptance of him could help heal his troubled mind? Or is she, like so many other people he encounters in the film, merely a figment of that mind?

It's a stumper, but hardly one that you're going to lose sleep over.

Two stars. Rated PG-13. Contains mature themes, strong language, some sexuality and violence. 99 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.

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