Jim Gaffigan Delivers a Dual Performance Without Slipping in ‘Linoleum’

A gentle bit of weird science fiction excels at characterization and emotion.

Linoleum’s Cameron Edwin (Jim Gaffigan) is unhappy in that vague way many people end up unhappy when just in the flow of life. He’s good at his job, a Mr. Wizard/Bill Nye the Science Guy-esque kids show host, but it isn’t exactly what he wanted. The show, Above and Beyond, airs at midnight—perhaps stoned teens enjoy Edwin?—far away from the intended audience’s eyes. On top of that, he still can’t kick his fantasy of being an astronaut.

Enter Kent Armstrong (also Gaffigan). While sending yet another application to NASA, Edwin encounters Armstrong in a car that literally falls from the sky. Armstrong looks like Edwin with more hair and confidence. He’s an astronaut. And, to add that last insult to injury, he’s come to town to take Edwin’s show away from him just in time for it to start airing on PBS.

When a piece of rocket lands in Edwin’s backyard, it completes his midlife spinout. He begins to assemble his own spacecraft. He’s going to space, NASA’s approval be damned.

Edwin is hardly alone in his unhappiness. His wife Erin (Rhea Seehorn) is unhappy in the marriage, frustrated with her limitations as a parent, and unsure about what she wants from the future. Their daughter Nora (Katelyn Nacon) doesn’t fit in with school and finds her understanding of her sexuality thrown into doubt by a new classmate. That student, Armstrong’s son Marc (Gabriel Rush), is over everyone’s hero worship of his father, and with good reason.

When Edwin pours his unhappiness into his rocket obsession, he also upsets their dynamics. Characters find themselves pushed out of their comfort zone, for better and worse.

It’s Like a Dream to Me

What’s almost immediately noticeable about Linoleum is how dreamlike it feels. Obviously, the car falling from the sky sets that stage. However, that’s a loud note in a film that’s typically far more subtle. The tone, the colors, the film’s internal logic all feel a bit softened. Things aren’t literally out of focus, but it has that vibe. It feels out of step with itself. Colin West, the writer-director, ensures the script has a similar quality. Under his guidance, the action often jumps into scenes that seem already in progress or cuts off interactions abruptly.

Rather than detract from the story, the dreamlike vibe enhances it. It places the viewer in roughly the same headspace as Edwin. In the same way he is often befuddled, overwhelmed, or left frozen by an event or someone’s actions, the audience feels off-kilter with the narrative.

It also helps make the moments where this vibe drops away whip into focus. For instance, when Erin tells another character to fuck off, there’s nothing silly or soft about it. Instead, it hits hard, shocking the characters as much as the viewers. There’s also a moment when Dr. Alvin (Tony Shalhoub) discusses a patient’s situation with Edwin with a similar “suddenly very real” feel. The purpose differs significantly from Erin’s moment, but the result is the same.

Gaffigan Has Chops

Casting a comedian in a dramatic role is always something of a risk. Casting one in two different parts in the same film is an even riskier proposition. While Gaffigan has handled dramatic roles before this, his double act as Edwin and Armstrong is a far bigger lift. It requires him to largely eschew anything but the most natural moments of light comedy. He also is the film’s center. If he drops the ball, nothing else in the movie works.

As Edwin, he’s never less than great. He brings a sense of loss and being lost to the character without reducing Edwin to just those aspects. Of course, you can imagine this man living his entire life as he has until now. However, it is understandable why a particularly lousy week makes him act out in such a specific way.

His Armstrong feels less defined, but that’s intentional. He is both the ideal version of Edwin from a success standpoint and the least appealing version of him as a person. Gaffigan gives Armstrong’s shallow friendliness a vaguely slick feeling throughout. More importantly, in the moments the audience gets to see the astronaut as a TV host, and as a father, Gaffigan’s performance confirms a lack of humanity.

The supporting players are similarly well-cast. In particular, Seehorn walks a difficult line. She makes Erin seem more complex than the typical spouse scold early on, no easy task. To take that initial characterization and make her late in the film shift believable is even more challenging. However, she makes both sides feel realistic. More importantly, she makes them feel like aspects of the same person, not just two different characters.

The Rocket Man Lifts Off

While this review is spoiler-free, Linoleum’s ending deserves a moment of discussion, even if it is just vaguely.

In the last 15 minutes, various threads of the film, some that didn’t seem especially important or relevant, come together. Truths about Edwin’s relationship to his elderly friend Mac (Roger Hendricks Simon), Marc and Nora’s burgeoning romance, and the deal with that falling car converge into a surprisingly cohesive toll.

However, this isn’t a twist-ending magic trick. The purpose here isn’t to surprise or show off a character’s craftiness, ala The Usual Suspects. Instead, West seems committed to giving the ending emotional relevance. It deepens the audience’s understanding of the characters while further justifying the film’s floating, gauzy delivery. It’ll also, likely, leave viewers choked, if not outright wiping tears from their cheeks.

And In The End…

Linoleum offers a down-to-Earth version of weird science fiction that gives plenty of space for its strangeness to play without ever being overrun by it. Gaffigan leads a talented cast that ensures every character feels honest and well-rounded, save for his unpleasant alter ego Kent Armstrong. The ending is a surprise that pulls the film into a cohesive bow while delivering a bittersweet sendoff.

Linoleum is scheduled for liftoff in theatres everywhere February 24.

Rating: 8/10 SPECS

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.