Writer/Director Colin West crafts a well-intentioned and well-performed film that, unfortunately, suffers from clunky storytelling.
Unreliable narration is the name of the game in Colin West’s new trippy film Linoleum. It’s one-part family drama, one-part cosmic tale of time and space as middle-aged TV host Cameron (Jim Gaffigan) ‘s life spirals into chaos. Linoleum relies on tone to carry its story, creating an unsettling, strange picture that defies the laws of reality while simultaneously existing as a grounded family dramedy. But while Linoleum is an admirable experiment, inconsistencies in its storytelling distract from its intended emotional impact.
When Linoleum introduces Cameron, he’s grown disillusioned with life. His TV show is failing, and his marriage is on the rocks. He’s always dreamed of becoming an astronaut and so sets about rebuilding the rocket to fulfill that dream. Cameron’s wife Erin (Rhea Seehorn) and daughter Nora (Katelyn Nacon) think he might be losing his mind. Soon bizarre events, including the mysterious arrival of dashing, arrogant neighbor Kent (also Gaffigan) and his teen son Marc (Gabriel Rush), start to unfold. Is Cameron truly going crazy? Or must he cast aside rational thought to achieve his dreams?
One of Linoleum’s great strengths is its cast. Gaffigan’s performing at a career-best as both aloof Cameron and doppelgänger Kent—both playing to his type (comedic, bumbling Cameron) and against it (charming, slick jerk Kent). As Cameron’s strained wife, Erin, Seehorn finds nuanced layers within a suburban housewife and mother, slowly realizing she’s forgotten her own dreams. Both land Linoleum’s comedic moments (including flashbacks to the times both hosted Cameron’s show) and its dramatic turns (the pair reconnecting as they rebuild the rocket together).
While writer/director West plays with unreliable narration through Cameron, it gets tricky when presenting scenes from other characters’ points of view. Many follow Nora’s point of view, for instance. While those scenes have some great moments – a heart-to-heart with Erin after a fight or the moments of her blossoming friendship with Marc – they distract from the wider movie, especially after some late-film revelations make its macro-scale events clear.
Without spoiling too much, Cameron experiences moments from different times as if they were all happening simultaneously. Adding to the chaos, it’s revealed that some of the ensembles are, in fact, playing the same people at different ages and with other names. In practice, this twist and these character reveals are less of a shocking moment and more of a befuddled explanation for the picture’s mysterious happenings.
This twist makes the scenes from points of view other than Cameron’s a confusing mess. Are the scenes without him also a part of his memory? If the movie’s aim is to examine Cameron’s point of view, then scenes without him (in any incarnation) feel superfluous. West’s experiment in creating a disorganized story for the sake of focusing on its bizarre tone ultimately frustrates. And when Linoleum attempts to wrap up all of its storylines in the last act, it’s less of a cathartic release and more of a jumble (albeit a well-edited one).
West is a talented director and writer, nailing the tone of a man who might be unraveling. But Linoleum’s focus on that chaotic tone overshadows and undercuts its emotional moments. It’s worth watching for Gaffigan and Seehorn. They’re doing truly great acting here. Unfortunately, Linoleum’s otherwise clunky storytelling gets in its own way.
Linoleum opens Friday, February 24th, 2023.