The first clue that Linoleum is not a typical midlife crisis drama arrives in the form of a cherry-red convertible. In most ways, it’s exactly the cliché of a car that a man in his 40s might purchase in a desperate attempt to reclaim his lost youth. But protagonist Cameron Edwin (Jim Gaffigan) isn’t buying the car. Instead, he’s reeling with shock as it lands mere feet from his mailbox, having fallen out of a clear blue sky just a few minutes into the movie.
Thus begins the odd chain of events that will nudge Cameron into a new perspective on what his life has been. It takes some time for Linoleum to fully unveil its bigger picture, though eagle-eyed viewers may be able to start putting the pieces together much earlier. But thoughtful performances and earnest (if especially subtle) writing keep the film compelling enough until its final minutes, which are even more startling in their heart-wrenching effectiveness than in their mind-bending twists.
Twisty and touching.
When we first meet Cameron, he’s already sinking into unhappiness. Once a promising astronomy student at Cornell, he’s now the host of a science show for kids that his Ohio TV station has banished to late-night time slots, when no children are actually awake to watch. His marriage to Erin (Rhea Seehorn, terrific as always), formerly his cohost on the show, is on the brink of divorce. His father (Roger Hendricks Simon) is holed up in an elder care facility dealing with dementia severe enough that he hardly seems to recognize Cameron at all.
Into this disappointment of a life comes that car, which carries a man that even Cameron has to admit looks “like a younger, better looking version of me.” Also played by Gaffigan — but with a hard, glittering shine that stands in stark contrast to Cameron’s soft resignation — Kent Armstrong shows up at Cameron’s job, moves across the street from Cameron’s house and enrolls his teenage son Marc (Gabriel Rush) in school with Cameron’s teenage daughter Nora (Katelyn Nacon). Meanwhile, a satellite has also fallen out of the sky into Cameron’s backyard, which Cameron sees as the perfect opportunity to build his own rocket ship and make his thwarted astronaut dreams come true.
Initially, the plot seems to be set up for Cameron to throw himself a pity party in the most obnoxiously twee way imaginable. (I mean, a rocket ship in a garage? Really?) And wallow he does, bitterly complaining to Marc that instead of “doing something fantastic,” like he’d always hoped to do in his youth, “I’m stuck building a DIY rocket out of a hunk of Apollo garbage just to prove I’m worth a damn.”
But writer-director Colin West demonstrates a confident grasp on the film’s tone, layering melancholy and dreaminess and wry humor without tilting too far toward any of them. And though Cameron is the protagonist, Linoleum never loses sight of the other characters in his orbit — particularly Nora, who starts to bond with Marc over their shared status as school misfits.
Separately, either Cameron’s grown-up despair and Nora’s journey of self-discovery could make for a decent little indie drama on its own. In conversation with each other, they become more than the sum of their parts. Cameron’s mourning for his squandered potential, or Erin’s ambivalence about her own humdrum career at the Air and Space Museum, feel all the more acute because they see in Nora and Marc glimmers of the bolder souls they must have been once. On the flip side, Nora and Marc’s hopes and fears for their futures take tangible form in their parents. Free-spirited Nora can see nothing of herself in her uptight mother, as she makes clear during a particularly vicious argument, while Marc gravitates toward Cameron as a kinder version of the cruel father he has at home.
All the while, West sprinkles in odd details that suggest there’s some other layer to the Edwins’ and the Armstrongs’ relatively quotidian woes that we’re not seeing yet. The camera lingers on a shattered helmet of a spacesuit, or a toy car that looks like the one that crashed from the sky. Certain words and phrases recur, echoed by one character then another. A doctor (Tony Shalhoub) seems to communicate only in cryptic, existential concepts: “I’m suggesting that perhaps the universe in our heads is more real than reality itself,” he advises a bemused Cameron. An old woman (Elisabeth Henry) keeps showing up in Cameron’s suburban neighborhood to stare at him silently from a distance.
To say too much more would be to risk giving away Linoleum‘s secrets. Perhaps it’s enough to warn that the film’s eventual resolutions follow a loose emotional logic rather than an airtight “rational” one, and that despite the film’s ambiguously magical sci-fi vibe, its biggest twists are intimate and personal. Linoleum is in many ways a small movie, concerned with not much more than this limited circle of people trying to figure out how to understand their own lives — to make peace with the brighter future that never came, or to decide how to take charge of their own destinies, or to sort through the relationships that have mattered to them all along. But the emotional punch it packs has the weight of entire lifetimes behind it.