Linoleum Review

Linoleum was reviewed out of the SXSW Film Festival, where it made its world premiere.

Colin West’s Linoleum has little in common with comedian and star Jim Gaffigan’s popular Hot Pockets stand-up jokes — it’s more like watching Bill Nye suffer a midlife crisis brought upon by interstellar debris. It’s hard to prepare for when comedy professionals tackle dramatic roles, but that’s just our preconceptions playing tricks on us. Gaffigan never relies on the familiarity of his exhausted-father stage presence or propensity for junk-food humor — Linoleum is straight-faced and from the heart. It’s an odd mix of downplayed science fiction and suburban woes, all leading to a rapturous final act that becomes so human in its flaws, fears, and ability to seek storybook beauty in something paralyzingly unknown.

Gaffigan plays Cameron Edwin, an astronomer with his own local informational children’s show, “Above & Beyond,” about scientific topics. Cameron’s wife, Erin (Rhea Seehorn) — who’s seeking a divorce — works at the local air and space museum. It’s the setup of Cameron’s unfulfillment that seeps into his daily routine. PBS buys Cameron’s show with a commanding new host, Kent Armstrong, also played by Gaffigan. His deteriorating father, Mac (Roger Hendricks Simon), inches closer to death. His family suffers eviction when a defunct Russian (or American) shuttle crashes in their backyard. Cameron Edwin just wants to fulfill his personal promise of doing something fantastic; so he decides to build a rocket in his garage.

Linoleum is packaged as an adulthood drama about impending fates and days gone by too quickly. West’s script cycles through motions of the sad sack-turned-motivated oddball as Cameron believes a spaceship built from spare parts and junkyard scraps will make him a global hero. Everything about his ho-hum existence in Fairview Heights — whose motto is “Soar to new heights!” — is like a bad-luck daydream. There’s something slightly amiss from the first minutes we spend with Cameron, starting with the overturned red muscle car that drops out of the sky and spits out his better-looking, more stern doppelganger.

Still, Gaffigan’s focal performance grounds everything in an earnestly relatable sense of revitalization. A calmness humbles Cameron as he realizes he’s become an astronomer who only looks toward the sky, not the astronaut who swims with the stars. Gaffigan’s eyes swell with the pain of disappointment, and his words curse the mundaneness of his legacy, much like anyone might feel as their 20s become 40s in a whirlwind blink. There’s a determination behind Cameron’s reassembly of bargain jet boosters, albeit something we’ve seen in countless parenthood arcs where mothers or fathers detach themselves from reality to pursue the ambitions of their youth.

Then, out of nowhere, Linoleum becomes an ode to allyship as Cameron’s daughter, Nora (Katelyn Nacon), confronts her bisexuality with a new crush, Kent’s boy-next-door son Marc (Gabriel Rush). They both confess secrets to each other — Marc enjoys his own societally shunned comforts — and the movie starts to become less about the kooky patriarch losing everything while accidentally lighting his garage ablaze. Juxtapositions of rational and irrational choices start calling into question what we sacrifice as Erin realizes she’s abandoned any sense of adventure for a life of guarded conformity, with Cameron now representing the opposite. Characters reiterate a mantra of how simple it is to make one decision that changes everything about ourselves and how deceptively difficult it can be to trust such logic. West’s all-American tragedy seems on course for a happy ending we’ve seen overdone into oblivion — which is why the third act’s bombshell is essential.

Colin West creates something outstandingly emotional in the last few scenes.

No spoilers here, but Linoleum’s climax and outro are an exceptional realization of what a lifetime’s worth. Halloween parties, touching reunions, and the imprisoning heft of dementia show West’s ambitious tale come full circle with immense compassion. Gaffigan’s softie smile and wonderstruck warmth embrace this gorgeousness about where West transports us, despite unexpectedly somber intentions. Maybe the whiplash might overwhelm those not ready to deal with what’s prominently featured, but filmmaking is inherently riddled with risks. West creates something outstandingly emotional in those last few scenes, which elevate Linoleum above being just another feel-good, or even feel-good-enough character study about the tragedy that is twilight years.

Author: Alex Stedman.