These days it feels like we’re more frequently encountering stories of people — particularly men — obsessed with legacy. Characters yearn for a sense of permanence while us viewers, overwhelmed by the high-speed, haphazard contentification of everything, silently wish for something more solid in our lives too. One temporarily pacifying pleasure is to reminisce, letting memory launch us back to our recollection of earlier, simpler days when so much seemed to be ahead of us and the world wasn’t so complicated. Colin West’s new feature Linoleum is made in this spirit. It jettisons the ruminative self-seriousness a more prestige-inflected drama might opt for, instead preferring a snug, pleasantly offbeat vibe that’s equally nostalgic and sanguine.
Cameron Edwin (Jim Gaffigan) is the host of a shoestring-budget children’s science show on local TV (think a failing, super-retro Bill Nye the Science Guy). His milquetoast life gets upended when a space-race-era satellite crash lands in his backyard, inspiring Cameron to MacGyver a rocket ship in his garage in a bid to fulfill his long-held dream of becoming an astronaut. His wife Erin (Rhea Seehorn) and daughter Nora (Katelyn Nacon) already think he’s losing it a bit, and as their family faces mounting turmoil, strange disruptions to his life begin to convince him that there’s more to his reality than he thought.
You’d be forgiven if the first thing that comes to mind when watching Linoleum is “Kaufman-lite.” Much of the film’s style and themes are derivative of Charlie Kaufman’s work — the neurotic handwringing about mortality, the surrealist touches bending the story world’s contours, the doses of metaphysics providing the springboard into questions of the meaning of life. There’s even an implied minor thread around gender identity concerning Marc (Gabriel Rush), the son of Cameron’s doppelganger Kent Armstrong (also Jim Gaffigan), who moves into his neighborhood. Linoleum lacks the formal deftness to completely defeat any pastiche allegations, yet its smaller-scale stakes and unpretentious, indie approach imbue it with a hard-to-hate underdog quality. The fact that it may wear its influences on its sleeve is much more an endearing homage than uninspired rehash.
Linoleum could certainly be entered into the canon of “aggressively quirky” films. Saturated colors and warm lights bathe many scenes in this sun-drenched, hopeful glow. The soundtrack leans heavily on twinkly synth melodies, evoking starry skies and a proto-bedroom pop soundscape pitch perfect at capturing the sort of aspirational longing that would stir the denizens of a sleepy suburb. The “aggressive” comes into play once you notice the same riffs getting recycled for the umpteenth time or the one-too-many woozy slow-mo sequences. In the world of Colin West, man’s will to power is driven by insistently whimsical optimism, the sort that seemed abundant in childhood, later sapped by midlife adulthood’s logistics. West’s screenplay drives the theme home with all the subtlety of a tenth grader’s take-home essay, and his characters repeat the film’s verbal motifs, particularly “it’s not that simple,” a groan-worthy number of times.
Everybody also gets an identity crisis in Linoleum. Cameron and Erin, in their own ways, feel like life has passed them by as they’ve settled for middle-American obscurity. Nora chafes at the limiting boxes her provincial life offers for teenage girls. This echoing initially comes off redundant. Every principal character is effectively given the same arc, with screen time split to spotlight each of them. Nacon winds up being the show-stealer, her blend of effervescence and vulnerability as central to the film’s pathos as Cameron’s beats. That’s not to say Gaffigan and Seehorn don’t hold their own: Gaffigan’s charming enough pulling double-duty as two polar opposite men who could both be boiled down to a few key qualifiers. The stalwart Seehorn is solid, though any Better Call Saul fans will have a tough time not seeing Kim Wexler in almost every aspect of this performance (seeing Erin admonish Cameron about the legal ramifications of his science experiment gave this reviewer flashbacks).
But when the story threads finally do come together in a late-inning reveal, the intention behind the parallel plots becomes clear, sparking an emotional eureka moment that elevates the final half-dozen or so minutes into more bizarre, profound territory. If only Linoleum had bat that well for more of its run time, then we might have had something truly fantastic on our hands.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 9.