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On the surface, Linoleum is about a man living in suburban Ohio who experiences surreal events, which his wife and daughter read as a midlife crisis. But it’s about much more than that, spanning themes of memory, decay and our struggle to piece together events in life to create a coherent narrative. Despite its distribution deal with HBO, Linoleum offers a slightly warped perspective on the usual sci-fi drama package, choosing instead to take a risk on a unique character study that ultimately pays off.
Director: Colin West
Release date: March 13, 2022 (SXSW)
Rating: Not yet rated
Cameron Edwin (Jim Gaffigan) feels stuck. He’s at a mid-point in life, his career as a children’s science TV show host is drying up, and he’s being out-shone by wealthier and more successful neighbors. On top of that, his relationship with his wife Erin (Rhea Seehorn) is fraught, and their teenage daughter Nora (Katelyn Nacon) seems to go out of her way to make trouble at home and at school.
But when a surreal event takes place on his way home – namely, a car crash-landing from the sky with their new neighbor inside – Cameron’s world is thrown into confusion. This isn’t the first time he experiences a bizarre event: the neighbor seems to resemble him, acting as a doppelganger at work, home, and in the neighborhood. All of these circumstances cause Cameron to question his reality and his current life situation, and comparisons may be made to the surreal elements in Things Heard & Seen.
And to top it all off, the strangest event of all follows: an anonymous satellite crash-lands into their garden, rendering the house a scene for forensic examination. The family are forced into eviction, staying with Erin’s free-spirited sister who’s a great foil to Cameron (even if the film’s writers do under-use her character.)
Questioning his grip on reality with every successive encounter, Cameron goes so far as to look back into his past and at his failed childhood dream of becoming an astronaut. And though wife Erin reads this as a psychological disaster and it seems their separation is imminent, he ploughs on with his dream. In the pattern of many nostalgic films, Linoleum leans heavily into iconography from decades past: old tapes, vintage costumes, wild haircuts, colourful sets. But like an indie Ghostbusters: Afterlife, I wonder if it perhaps leans into the nostalgia too much, lingering in over-saturated shots of the town.
Cameron’s story isn’t the only one that develops over the course of the film. Teenage Nora and unassuming boy-next-door Marc (Gabriel Rush) slowly become friends, both of them thrown together by feeling like outsiders at school. This storyline is perhaps the easiest to get invested in, as at times the adults’ lives – complete with Cameron’s derailed career and the unnamed satellite – are difficult to follow.
While the marketing suggests that this film is a comedy sci-fi, at times it feels like neither of these things: it’s more of a saturnine suburban dramedy with a few extra-terrestrial elements. The family dynamic can verge on miserable at times, as they’re clearly in a rut and have to dig themselves out of it.
We’re left feeling that the dialogue between Cameron and Erin could have had so much more potential for comedy but it always errs towards the serious. I won’t spoil too much, but there is a final turning point that reveals all, yet it feels like a long time coming. I felt that the film could have benefitted from a shorter runtime and more of an episodic structure, allowing it to more fully embody the unique scenarios Cameron encounters and to develop characters we only see in part.
Yet for all these points, Linoleum had its redeeming qualities. Nora and Marc’s friendship is particularly enjoyable, and their school dynamic builds on familiar tropes as they take down the popular kids with their wry sense of humor. Erin’s career as an astronomer has funny moments, as a fresh-faced graduate (Elliot Frances Flynn) looks around the clerical building wide-eyed, revealing that it’s been her dream to work here – Erin, needless to say, is unimpressed. The set-dressing is convincing and even the plot involving Erin and Cameron’s shared children’s TV show creates sympathy for the two characters, as we see them working together on their passion project during a happier time.
The entire film acts as a metaphor for a lost soul who tries to launch himself out of his predicament and experience a new take on life. While it could have been finessed to bring out the more humorous side of each of the characters, it’s a well-produced and cerebral dramedy that befits its HBO production values and will surely land with the right audience.