Jim Gaffigan reaches for the stars in the charming and deeply heartfelt Linoleum
Sci fi, comedy, family drama, Linoleum really has it all. The “cosmically existential” debut feature from writer/director Colin West has drawn comparisons to Safety Not Guaranteed and Donnie Darko, and we can only hope it will achieve similar cult status. Linoleum is playing as part of the BFI London Film Festival after premiering at South by Southwest.
Sometime in the early 90s Cameron Edwin (the multitalented Jim Gaffigan) writes, records and hosts children’s science show ‘’Above and Beyond’’ from his garage. It’s broadcast to a small audience during the graveyard slot of their local public access television network – think Bill Nye in Mr Rogers cardigan, but with a shoestring budget.
When Cameron learns that he is to be replaced as the host of his own show by new neighbour Kent Armstrong, an actual bona fide astronaut, he has a crisis of confidence and begins to think he has wasted his scientific education. This combined with a series of bizarre happenings in his neighbourhood convinces Cameron he needs to ‘’do something fantastic.’’ Using the pieces of an old rocket that crash landed in his back yard he sets about trying to build a spaceship in his garage.
Though Linoleum may sound like a sci fi the space stuff is mostly a vehicle for a gently funny family drama. The b-plot follows Cameron’s wife Erin (Better Call Saul’s Rhea Seehorn) who is also unhappy with her lot in life. After giving up working with Cameron on ‘’Above and Beyond’’ to take boring clerical museum job she is now considering divorcing him.
Meanwhile their daughter Nora (a delightfully whip smart Katelyn Nacon) is finally fitting in at school after befriending the new neighbour’s son. An ambitious and educated family, they are all struggling with this strong held notion that they should be doing something fantastic with their lives and plodding along as they are not it.
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Now here’s where this film gets difficult to review, for as Cameron frequently says ‘’it’s just not that simple.’’ Whilst we are constantly drip-fed clues that all is not as it seems on the surface, the third act of Linoleum veers off into a wildly different direction than expected, one that is difficult to describe without dropping spoilers.
Whilst I half expected a ‘’the real treasure was the friends we made along the way’’ or ‘’in another life I would have really just liked doing laundry and taxes with you’’ type payoff to the whole ‘let’s build a spaceship’ idea, it’s actually so much more. It’s a wildly inventive finale that also manages to seriously pull at the heart strings, grounding its sillier elements in emotionally powerful relationships.
What’s more, there’s some seriously clever craftsmanship at play. When the ‘big reveal’ comes off you immediately realise all the breadcrumbs you’d written off that led to this moment. Whilst I did immediately want to watch it a second time to catch more of them and see it all fall into place; a second watch is not necessary to understand it. West leaves his audience satisfied that the puzzle leads up to a satisfying conclusion where everything fits just right. Even if the picture might not be what you thought was on the box.
Like a Christopher Nolan film but with more magical realism and kitschy sentimentality (and a less aggressive score,) Linoleum explores deeper concepts whilst showcasing the power of love and connection across the universe. It’s funny, sad, smart, unexpected and perfectly measured. One of the best films I’ve seen this year and an utter joy from start to finish.