I would not have guessed that my favorite movie of the year so far would be a low-budget time-bending stunner starring Jim Gaffigan as a sad-sack would-be astronaut and all-around washout.
Yet here we are.
“Linoleum” is a gem, the kind of movie that you want to tell your friends about, except you can’t, really, because too much of it is a puzzle folded in on itself in such a way that you don’t even realize it’s happening right in front of you. So instead you just have to beg them to see it.
So I am begging you: See “Linoleum.”
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Jim Gaffigan, known for comic roles, shines in a drama
Gaffigan, known more for his comedy act and goofy, lightly comic roles, plays Cameron Edwin, the star of a local kids’ science show that airs at midnight. Kind of a bad time slot for a children’s show, isn’t it, asks his teenage daughter Nora (Katelyn Nacon, outstanding). Yes, Cam acknowledges, but his boss dangles a Saturday-morning slot the way Lucy dangles a football in front of Charlie Brown.
Cam’s a mess. The show’s going nowhere, his wife Erin (Rhea Seehorn), who used to co-star with him, wants a divorce and he is haunted by the feeling that his life hasn’t gone where he wanted it to. There are two kinds of people, his father told him, astronauts and astronomers. One looks at the stars, the other goes out among them.
Cam is not an astronaut.
He wants to be, though, sending off applications to NASA. That goes about as expected.
Everything changes when a sports car falls out of the sky
And then one day a red sports car falls out of the sky. Cam helps save the driver, who turns out to be Kent Armstrong, a successful scientist who looks a lot like Cam — and has come to replace him on the show.
Kent is everything Cam is not, at least in terms of success, but also in terms of temperament and confidence. Gaffigan plays both roles, and threads the needle of making them similar but unique.
Erin doesn’t believe Cam about the car, even though the local paper writes a story about it. Then, the day Cam learns of his replacement (he’s offered a consulting role on the show) a rocket crashes in his backyard.
Yes, things fall from the sky in writer and director Colin West’s film. And it works.
Two things then happen. One is that Kent’s son Marc (Gabriel Rush) starts hanging out with Nora, much to Kent’s chagrin. Both find solace in an outsider. Nora’s home life is obviously in flux, and Marc’s is worse — Kent is strict and demanding to the point of abusiveness. Their friendship, thanks to the honesty of the performances, plays as genuine.
The other is that, with Marc’s encouragement, Cam revives his dreams of becoming an astronaut and begins mining the crash site in his backyard for spare parts. Trying to ignite a rocket ignites a spark in him, giving him the encouragement he needs.
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If this sounds like it’s going in a familiar direction, it’s not. If you think you know what happens next, you don’t. But where West’s film takes us is not as important as how he gets us there (which is not to say the destination is immaterial; it’s not, and immensely satisfying).
While playing with time and memory, which are by any standard pretty big issues, West uses small things to keep the audience invested in following the story. Gaffigan’s performance, for instance, is a marvel of making incremental discoveries, his character’s and ours.
Seehorn’s Erin, meanwhile, at first is almost a villain, nitpicking every word her husband says, not bothering to hide her disdain. Yet through VCR tapes of the old version of their science show, we see what their lives once were like, the joy they had in working together. They wanted to do something awesome.
“It’s not that simple” is a refrain throughout the film. But maybe it is, one character says. The storytelling in “Linoleum” isn’t simple, but the joys of its discoveries are. It’ll make you think, and ultimately it will make you smile.
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‘Linoleum’ 4.5 stars
Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★
Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★
Director: Colin West.
Cast: Jim Gaffigan, Rhea Seehorn, Katelyn Nacon.
Rating: Not rated.
How to watch: In theaters Feb. 24.
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