“Linoleum” starts out as one kind of movie, drops teasing hints that it might be another type of film and ultimately plot-twists into, well, something else. All of which makes it difficult to review, much less describe in detail, without spilling an economy size bag of beans. But wait, there’s more: It’s also a movie that, not unlike “The Usual Suspects” or “Jacob’s Ladder,” likely will drive some viewers to opt for an instant replay after closing credits roll by, to see if that final twist actually does a watertight job of answering and explaining. Why? To quote a line of dialogue repeated almost as a mantra throughout the proceedings: It’s not that simple.
Jim Gaffigan impressively manages the tricky task of serving simultaneously as sympathetic protagonist and unreliable narrator while portraying Cameron Edwin, a once promising scientist and astronaut wannabe who’s nearing 50 while weighed down with a multitude of reasons for a full-blown midlife crisis. The “Bill Nye the Science Guy”-style children’s TV show he hosts for a Ohio station has been banished to a midnight timeslot; Erin (Rhea Seehorn), his wife and former co-host, wants a divorce before she moves away to accept an aerospace museum job in another city; Nora (Katelyn Nacon), his teenage daughter, has started addressing him by his first name as she’s caught up with her own identity issues; and Mac (Roger Hendricks Simon), his retired scientist father, is losing ground in his battle against dementia in an elderly care facility, despite the best efforts of his watchful doctor (Tony Shalhoub).
And mind you, these are only the problems that can be classified as normal in what is fuzzily defined as a mid-1990s universe with a dreamy/melancholy tech soundtrack (courtesy of Mark Hadley). Cameron’s hopes are briefly raised when PBS makes a deal for rights to his science show, but quickly dashed when he learns he’ll be replaced by Kent Armstrong (also Gaffigan), an aggressive careerist with a military air who Cameron can’t help noticing looks “like a younger, better-looking version of me.” More discombobulatingly, he also looks like the more-dead-than-alive passenger of a red sportscar that falls out of the sky before landing near Cameron while the latter bicycles home to his suburban neighborhood one afternoon. No, really.
“Linoleum” appears poised to detour into familiar quirky comedy territory when another object plummets to earth in the neighborhood: an Apollo-era booster rocket that inspires wish-fulfillment ambitions in Cameron. Specifically, he wants to repair the rocket for use in a DIY spacecraft he hopes to build in his garage and pilot to the heavens and beyond. Not surprisingly, his impractical plans are dismissed out of hand by Erin. Very surprisingly, Cameron receives strong encouragement from his new neighbor, Marc (Gabriel Rush), an enigmatic teenager who just happens to be the son of Kent Armstrong and his daughter Nora’s favorite classmate.
Writer-director Colin West draws upon several influences — most notably, “Donnie Darko,” the aforementioned “Jacob’s Ladder” and a relatively obscure 1989 Jack Lemmon-Ted Danson starrer titled “Dad” — while overlaying realism with magical realism and outright fantasy during the long strange trip that is “Linoleum.” Oddly enough, the movie is most affecting when it shifts focus away from Cameron for long stretches to concentrate on the budding romance between Marc and Nora, two high school misfits who initiate a mutual support system as each tentatively takes early steps toward self-definition. Nacon and Rush give such open-hearted and engaging performances that you may find yourself resentful more than once whenever the movie veers back to rocket-building and middle-age meltdowns. But that’s before we find out just why we’re spending so much time with the young people.
Both the overall narrative and the color palette of Ed Wu’s fluid cinematography darken progressively as “Linoleum” proceeds to that not-entirely-unpredictable yet satisfyingly imaginative moment when West proceeds to yank first the rug and then the floor from underneath our feet.
To give the filmmaker fair credit: He winds up justifying just about anything that might seem off-putting or intrusive in the first two-thirds of his movie — including the repeated appearances of an elderly woman who’s all-too-obviously a surreal thing, and the profoundly discomforting depiction of Marc’s most traumatic experiences with his martinet father. Trouble is, some viewers may lack the patience to maneuver through all the tonal dissonance and mystifying symbolism while waiting for The Big Reveal.
So consider this review primarily as an encouragement: Stick around. Your patience will be amply rewarded.
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