Simultaneously an unsettling projection of a father possibly losing his mind and a suburban family disintegrating from the pain of displaced dreams — Colin West’s “Linoleum” drafts a charming, nostalgic landscape set in the fictional town of Fairview Heights where aching secrets lurk underneath the vintage countertops. Taking the bones of “The Father” and “The Astronaut Farmer,” West’s picture tangles — at times to its own detriment — the travails of a group of quaint but peculiar characters for a distressing fable about the nature of aging and unfulfillment.
For these reasons, “Linoleum” is difficult to pin down; the obfuscations and slippages that run through it seem just as likely to frustrate viewers as they might compel them. An astronomer with a Bill Nye-inspired children’s science program saddled in a moribund late-night slot, Cameron Edwin (Jim Gaffigan) is just out for a bike ride when he dodges a red sports car that has suddenly fallen from the sky. He pulls the occupant from the wreckage — a man who, curiously, looks like a younger, more handsome version of him. The surreal incident causes the bounds of reality to shift for Edwin, and as he begins to fixate on the life he could have had, his current life unmoors.
That’s not to say that his current life is drama-free. Unbeknownst to their teenage daughter Nora (Katelyn Nacon) and young son, Edwin and his wife Erin (Rhea Seehorn) are on the brink of divorce. When the pair first met, they wanted different careers: Edwin harbored hopes of working for NASA, whom he still sends applications to in the mail. Erin, now working at the local air and space museum, can’t even vocalize her former aspirations — that’s how far away they seem. On a public programming channel, they once happily hosted the kitchy science program “Above and Beyond.” Now, Edwin helms the stagnant show alone.
The surprisingly unscathed driver of the muscle car, Kent Armstrong (also played by Gaffigan), is a former astronaut aiming to become the new host of Edwin’s show, and Armstrong’s shy son Marc (Gabriel Rush) forms a quick, burgeoning friendship with Nora. But it’s the lunar capsule, which recently crash-landed in Edwin’s backyard, that rockets Edwin straight into a midlife crisis.
Edwin’s father, now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, once told him there are two kinds of people in the world — astronauts and astronomers. Which is Edwin? As he starts attempting to build a rocket ship in his garage, he seems to be answering that very question, but many mysteries remain. He often sees a smiling elderly woman waving to him from another lawn. Who is she? In his den stands a Gemini-era spacesuit with a cracked helmet, and an upturned toy red car lying on the floor. How do these trinkets tie to the random happenings impacting Edwin?
West could allow these mysteries to marinate, but he forces the issue by relying on repetitive dialogue concerning paradoxes, crossing the line between a straightforward building of themes and hand-holding the viewer through stilted means. West leaves the film’s temporal setting ambiguous: the film is rife with vintage interiors ripped from the 1950s, and Edwin’s conservative fashions (he typically wears tweed jackets) and the purposelessly generic prep school uniforms of Nora’s school only further the illusion.
In a film with multiple moving parts — for long stretches, Edwin’s son disappears from view and the tone sharply switches (the all-American Armstrong isn’t all that he appears to be) — instinct might call for laying breadcrumbs to keep the audience in the loop. The strategy in this situation, however, only blunts the surreal edges of “Linoleum.”
“It’s not that simple,” Edwin and Erin often retort to explain their marital rut. At its heart, “Linoleum” is an otherworldly tragedy about endings and beginnings, and the existential rot whose origins feel unknown. It’s a fitting role for Gaffigan, who has taken on darker roles in recent years. Vulnerability comes naturally to him. Without spoiling, Gaffigan and Seehorn need to hold several facets of their characters within themselves. How do we define a successful life? To Edwin and Erin, their perceived failures cast a longer tail than their real achievements as parents and role models.
West splays these anxious questions over Edwin’s crumbling mental health. In one scene, Edwin seeks a consultation from his father’s nursing home head (Tony Shalhoub). The emotional shrapnel from their meeting disperses to unknown parts, and awaiting their impact requires great patience on the part of the audience. But just like that rocket ship, once West brings the pieces back together, the elaborate mysteries land back on Earth with their own feverish crash.
“Linoleum” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.