LINOLEUM Review: Clumsy, Yet Big Hearted and Occasionally Charming
Jim Gaffigan and Rhea Seehorn star in the sci-fi drama, directed by Colin West.
No doubt Colin West felt a pang of disappointment when, in 2020, Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things puzzled Netflix audiences with its mnemonic scheme of real and imagined characters, absurd comic undertones, and unusual emphasis on psychological (rather than physical) time.
Disappointed because his then script and now latest feature, Linoleum, which he started writing in 2015, employs much of the same formal trickery as Kaufman's picture, though not nearly as artfully. Nevertheless his clumsy but occasionally charming film is in many ways preferable to Kaufman's maunderings on Debordian theory, the nature of Time, and the demerits of pop criticism; for unlike its predecessor, its heart is bigger than its head.
The film concerns married couple Cameron and Erin; he is the host of a failed science show for kids; she, a senior archivist at the local Air and Space Museum and erstwhile co-host of the show. Theirs would seem to be a typically quiet Ohioan existence; and yet, their marriage is on the rocks (the divorce papers are in the mail), their new, strait-laced neighbor, Kent, not only resembles Cameron but even ousts him from his job, and, before long, a disused American rocket crash-lands in their backyard.
But what might have reconciled the couple only drives them further apart: Cameron, who is eager to look at and tinker with the space junk, feels that Erin has become stuffy and incurious in her middle age, forgetting their long-standing promise to "do something fantastic"; Erin, on the other hand, feels that Cameron is stuck in a childish fantasy of astronauts and space travel, and responds to his accusations of promise-breaking with a pensive "It's not that simple." Determined to prove he's "worth a damn," Cameron undertakes the reassembling of the debris with the help of his ailing father, Mac, a recipient of the prestigious Copley medal.
A proper discussion of Linoleum's narrative faults (and also of its more touching moments, in particular that of a young boy embracing his father) would risk spoiling its revelatory—but entirely foreseeable—ending. Suffice to say, there are certain inconsistencies in West's plotting, such as Cameron remembering (or reconstructing) conversations he wasn't privy to, and a few instances of miscasting in which characters bear little to no resemblance to their supposed younger selves. Which is not to say that any of the actors are out of place.
Jim Gaffigan, as Cameron, brings to the role not only his superb comedic timing of speech and gesture, but also an artless wonder and sincerity of spirit which, thanks to some flickers of circumspection, are more often charming than tediously pathetic. In an early exchange with a TV exec, Gaffigan manages to communicate pride, pathos, and exasperation in a mere nine words: "CAMERON: He [Kent] is like my antithesis or something. EXEC: Nemesis? CAMERON: No. Antithesis." (This muddled back-and-forth quickly brings to mind the secretary scene in Being John Malkovich—yet another trace of Kaufman.)
Rhea Seehorn, too, coming off a career-best performance in Vince Gilligan's Better Call Saul, is particularly well observed as Erin, though she often plays the role with more depth and sophistication than West knows how to make use of; thus the cutting short of her long-awaited confrontation with Cameron, in which years of marital turmoil are vaguely suggested but left unspoken. Indeed, her grievances are never properly voiced, much less acknowledged or accepted by Cameron; so much so that when she finally warms to the idea of building the rocket, her status as a determined, pragmatic woman in an unhappy marriage is reduced to that of a stubborn, humorless wife, who is mercifully delivered from her shortcomings by her infantile husband. Needless to say, Seehorn deserves—and performs—better than this.
But if the leads are somewhat underwritten, the supporting cast is grossly overwritten. Katelyn Nacon, who plays the couple's smart yet disobedient daughter, and Gabriel Rush, who plays Kent's shy, mistreated son, use their youthful innocence to eke out roles which are as old as the Hollywood Hills (they tryst without their parents' knowing, grumble about their more popular peers, and vehemently deny their feelings for each other); while Roger Hendricks Simon offers up a genial Mac, and Elisabeth Henry a fair-to-middling performance as Cameron's somnambulant stalker turned guardian angel.
Linoleum, then, is a remarkable scheme of mostly unremarkable features. Where originality was desirable, West has reached for the nearest cliché; and where trust in the audience's intelligence was essential, he has been too cautious and too fearful of ambiguity. The film's hammy and hurried closing exposition, for example, in which we find out who is who and what is what, plays like an overlong, entirely superfluous epilogue. Worse yet, it denies the audience the opportunity to rhapsodize about their own interpretations—a factor to which similar films such as Primer and Synecdoche, New York chiefly owe their longevity. Here, the debate is not only started but also finished, filed, and, dare I say, forgotten by the time the credits roll.
The film opens Friday, February 24, in select movie theaters throughout the U.S. via Shout Studios!
- Colin West
- Colin West
- Jim Gaffigan
- Rhea Seehorn
- Katelyn Nacon