Linoleum feels like it’s drawing on a lot of influences and, to its credit, never feels like it’s replicating them. With a suburban family dealing with the physical and emotional fallout of a spacecraft crash-landing in their backyard, while also dipping into the fantastical, there’s hints of Donnie Darko. With the dual performances from Jim Gaffigan as an emasculated soon-to-be divorcee and the successful military neighbor who cucks his job, there’s hints of Americanized Dostoyevsky. With a jobless TV science presenter fixated on rebuilding a rocket in his garage, there’s memories of Colin Trevorrow’s aimless, inferior Safety Not Guaranteed.
Linoleum’s writer-director Colin West has crafted something that feels unique and robust, with a striking visual palette and sure-footed melancholic-comic (melancomic?) tone. But while he gets credit for trying to pull off some unwieldy, contrived storylines with conviction, it’s in its final moments that Linoleum nearly buckles under its own weight. West is not content to let his film speak in pure abstractions, and is convinced that it’s better to give clear, explicit explanations for a story that would be better off trading solely in metaphor.
Cameron (Gaffigan) and Erin (Rhea Seehorn) used to host an educational science program for kids, but times move on, and his boss has opted for a more confident, assuring type of instructional programming—hosted by the sports car-driving, strong-mustached astronaut Kent Armstrong (also Gaffigan). Gaffigan’s chemistry with himself is stellar, imbuing two archetypal characters with pathos and charm, but even though Seehorn plays a mere 50% of her co-star’s parts, she deserves praise for her put-upon but deeply empathetic Erin. These are the right type of actors to lead this film; the sad comedy works well with the pair, and they greet the magical-realist, Spielberg-wonder moments with the right amount of deadpan.
Linoleum’s drama is well thought-out: Cameron and Erin’s marital issues impact the lives of their children, including their older daughter Nora (Katelyn Nacon) who chooses to grow closer to their new neighbor’s son Marc (Gabriel Rush) than her own family. Marc also shows more of an interest in Cameron’s astronomy and rocket-making than his own father, and it’s clear Marc is trying to shift away from Kent’s controlling influence just as Nora rejects Cameron’s lameness. Cameron’s insecurities aren’t just compounded by his mirror image; his elderly, dementia-suffering scientist father Mac (Roger Hendricks Simon) is equally responsible for his self-deprecating assessment of himself. (It’s here Tony Shalhoub drops in for a lovely, wry extended cameo as Mac’s physician.) Cameron’s ultimate project—building a functioning rocket in his garage—suffers from a lack of clarity as to whether the audience should expect him to be successful, but as a pipedream goal for someone in the throes of a mid-life crisis, it works.
All in all, there’re plenty of strands for Linoleum’s drama to fixate on, even if sweetness and quirk can only disguise their thinness for so long. Cycles of abuse can produce as many dejected, malaised losers as they do abusers, and in the Cameron/Kent diptych we see a solid investigation into how men idolize success from the outside, even if they know, deep down, the amount of mistreatment such fathers can doll out. What spousal/parenting/professional standards does Cameron judge himself by? Are they the same ones his kids, his wife and his rival use to judge him? Are the ways our loved ones look at us restricted to only the ways we feel about ourselves?
With this, we hit upon the central problem of Linoleum. Without delving into spoilers, the film concludes in a phantasmagorical display of transcendent light and sound that reveals the deepest, truest fear and pain our protagonist has buried. West has a confident and assured visual style aided by Ed Wu’s crisp cinematography; combined with Mark Hadley’s score, it’s possible to get swept up in the swelling feeling that courses through Cameron’s final moments of self-actualization. But Linoleum’s central metaphors suffer as a result.
Even though the film stylistically veers towards abstract territory, in reality the opposite is happening. West makes sure to tie every plot strand directly with our main storyline with clear, reductive over-explaining, nixing the characters’ power as individuals and reducing them to stagnant symbols. There’s characters being reflections of each other, and then there’s the climax of Linoleum. All that’s “revealed” in the final stretch is West’s unwillingness to submerge his audience in the unknown. Dostoyevskian scenarios aren’t classic literature because they gave a 1:1 explanation for their weirdness, and Linoleum’s lack of faith in its characters—they may not be deeply explored, but they are clear and well-defined—undercuts our ability to connect with them in the hours after the film ends.
Director: Colin West
Writer: Colin West
Starring: Jim Gaffigan, Rhea Seehorn, Katelyn Nacon, Gabriel Rush, Michael Ian Black, Tony Shalhoub
Release Date: February 24, 2023
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.