Linoleum may struggle to balance its storylines and juggle several tones, but thanks to poignant performances and a deeply felt finale, this sci-fi dramedy sticks the landing.
At this point, there’s nothing all that “new” about the “mid-life crisis movie.” From comedies (Sideways, Crazy, Stupid, Love.) to dramas (The Wrestler, Revolutionary Road) to dramedies (American Beauty, The Descendants), we’ve frankly seen it all, so if you want to leave a lasting impression telling this type of familiar tale, you’ve got to do something really different, and with the witty and whimsical Linoleum, writer-director Colin West (Double Walker) proves that he’s more than up to the task. From the minute we’re introduced to Jim Gaffigan’s (Luca, Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation) Cameron Edwin, we know that nothing is going right in his life, and things are only going to get worse. For starters, he’s the host of a failing children’s science show, and though PBS just bought his program, he’s being replaced by a more “alluring” anchor, named Kent Armstrong (also played by Gaffigan). Additionally, his wife Erin (Rhea Seehorn, of Better Call Saul and Things Heard & Seen) is an aimless worker at the local air and space museum, who is currently seeking a divorce from him. Oh, and his dad (Roger Hendricks Simon) is inching closer to death with each passing day.
On top of all of that, he also finds himself distancing from his daughter Nora (Katelyn Nacon, of The Walking Dead and Too Many Cooks), who is sorting through struggles of her own as she tries to make sense of her sexuality after formerly believing herself to be a lesbian before meeting Armstrong’s geeky but good-natured son Marc (Gabriel Rush, of Moonrise Kingdom and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) and subsequently falling head over heels for him. Amidst all the chaos of their lives – with Nora unable to emotionally connect with her father and Marc often being abused by his – they seek solace in one another, and a fortuitous friendship is born. However, when a defunct space satellite crashes into the Edwins’ house, all of their lives are thrown into turmoil, but most of all Cameron’s, who takes the opportunity to make use of the debris and build a rocket ship in his garage – a lifelong goal of his that he’s ignored in pursuit of an existence of normalcy and conformity. Upon following this path, Cameron thrusts his whole family into his flight of fancy, with the events that follow shaping their collective future.
There’s undeniably a lot going on in Linoleum, and some storylines certainly fare better than others. It’s no surprise that, as the lead, Gaffigan’s Cameron gets the lion’s share of attention, and this midlife crisis is indeed unlike any we’ve seen before, characterized by sci-fi schemes and a delirious disassociation with reality that Gaffigan portrays perfectly, but it’s actually Nora and Marc who earn most of the movie’s emotional beats, with Nacon and Rush effectively selling us on the evolution of this unlikely duo and their “flirtationship.” While other subplots can occasionally come across as more structurally chaotic, Nora and Marc’s is comparatively simpler and more stirring, both thanks to West’s warm writing for the two (with a subtle yet strong grasp of Nora’s sexuality) and the affecting performances from these two young actors, who capably express their innocent but crackling chemistry. Seehorn’s Erin is unfortunately the member of the Edwin family who gets most lost in the shuffle as the story goes on, with her professional problems lacking the fervor of Cameron’s fascination with his rocket ship or the sweet-natured sentiment of Nora and Marc’s affinity for one another. That battle to balance the storylines for each colorful character in this cast also becomes an issue as the tones of these storylines – and of impactful events in the narrative – start to clash.
Cameron’s circumstances are the most surreal (and his subplot is where we see the most blending of reality and fantasy), while Nora and Marc’s discussions are the most down-to-earth, and Erin’s strife is somewhere in the middle. At times, it’s also hard to see where these individual odysseys will overlap and come into contact with one another (even when understanding West’s intentions to investigate how this midlife crisis affects everyone), but, thankfully, he is able to wash most of these worries away with Linoleum’s truly touching third act and deeply felt finale, which explains almost all of the earlier eccentricities and gives a riveting reason for the occasional confusion caused before. It’s in this conclusion where we see the true meaning for West’s making of this movie, and it’s almost impossible to not be moved to tears when understanding how all of these characters and their singular troubles tie together, even if your engagement faltered here or there in the first two acts. Could the script have been strengthened a bit in the lead-up to make the film as a whole a tad more coherent? For sure, but West assures that won’t be the first thing on audience’s minds when they leave the theater thanks to how transcendent this resolution is.
And, above all else, even the story is a bit scattered or its conflicts become crowded, the wonderful work from this exceptional ensemble will keep you (mostly) enthralled the whole way through. Gaffigan delights in dual roles, bringing a blend of madness and melancholia to the confused Cameron and a raw understated rage to the knavish Kent, while the aforementioned Nacon and Rush are able to stand toe-to-toe with the adult actors thanks to their riveting relatability and absorbing affability, and even though Seehorn isn’t always given the material an actress of her caliber can handle, her talent towers above nonetheless, and she makes Erin a compelling character. In the end, Linoleum makes the case that true love (of any kind) and human connection are all we really need in life, and with those who sincerely care for us by our side, there’s nothing we can’t do – and it’s hard to walk away from a movie like this stony-faced, given how shamelessly (and successfully) it champions sentimentality in these cynical times.
Linoleum premiered at SXSW 2022 on March 12, 2022. Read our recommendations of films to watch at the festival!