Well, thank heaven “Linoleum” isn’t about Jim Gaffigan, as a frustrated kids’ TV science show host, building a rocket in his garage and launching himself into space. We’ve all seen “The Astronaut Farmer,” after all. And Wallace & Gromit’s “A Grand Day Out.”
Writer-director Colin West’s soulful, sci-fi spin on taking stock of one’s life may be gimmicky. Why have one Jim Gaffigan role when you can offer your star two parts for the same pay? And it may spoil some of its near-magical effect by overdoing and overexplaining in its serene, Star Child finale.
West, who did the recent no-budget horror tale “Double Walker,” takes on nothing less than life itself, its eddies and the backwash that we struggle to understand as it is happening and only really pick up on after this or that phase has passed. And he does it via a sneaky story that’s just realistic enough to trick you into feeling it’s straightforward, when no, that’s not the idea at all.
Gaffigan plays a frustrated 50ish astronomer, once a young scientist of great promise, now condemned to doing a local kids’ TV show, “Above & Beyond,” in suburban Dayton in the Chevy Chevette/Buick Roadmaster era very early 90s.
Even the cars aren’t a reliable indicator of our time setting. The TV show is cathode-ray-tube/DIY effects cheesy, and cute with an early ’70s vibe.
When we meet Cameron (Gaffigan), his smarmy station program director has just taken that show away from him, demoting him to “consultant” on his own quirky creation. A new fellow with more accomplished science and space program achievements has been summoned. And damned if he doesn’t look just like Cameron (Gaffigan again).
Cameron doesn’t quite let this roll off his back. But considering that he narrowly avoided being crushed when this new guy’s T-top Corvette plummeted out of the sky and crashed, he’s willing to mull over a coincidence when it crashes right in front of him.
His wife (Rhea Seehorn) doesn’t believe him, his daughter (Katelyn Nacon) is a tad more credulous. And his younger son sits this one out.
Perhaps the kid realizes the futility of arguing, that this marriage is ending. Mother Erin is taking a job far away, a giant step up from her local “Air & Space Museum” gig. She’s driving out of this dead-end.
Another coincidence arrives in the form of space junk that plummets into their backyard, forcing them to move in with Erin’s sister. But Cameron, at a loss, takes the new neighbor kid’s (Gabriel Rush) suggestion that he could “build your own spacecraft” out of what crashed, and starts to tinker, hammer and work the problem towards doing one “fantastic” thing with his life.
For once, he won’t let “It’s not that simple” stop him. Nor will visions of a strange old lady he keeps seeing.
The fact that his “I like girls” daughter has taken a shine to the new boy and the new kid happens to be the son of the Corvette-driving jerk who is taking over Cameron’s show? More coincidences, and pretty much par for the course with the way Cameron sees life happening to him, without a whole lot of input on his part.
Gaffigan’s been doing movies since the ’90s, and while he plays a fairly diverse selection of characters — robber baron George Westinghouse in “Tesla,” a darker, drug-trafficking Cameron in “American Dreamer” — his sweet spot might be roles that play into his walking, talking “Dad joke” stand-up persona.
Here he’s put upon and easy to empathize with, even as we don’t have a lot of trouble figuring out why Cameron’s wife is leaving.
The film’s sparkling scenes come from the teens, one shunned in school because of her out-of-the-closet preference for girls, the other beaten down by the expectations of his over-achiever father. There’s a whole other movie in their friendship and unlikely connection.
But there’s also a movie in Cameron and Erin’s failing marriage, and one in his relationship with his scientist-dad, who is now in a home suffering from dementia, treated by an in-house physician (Tony Shalhoub) who would prefer to stay in his lane, but maybe wonders himself about these coincidences Cameron keeps bringing up.
“Linoleum” is hard to pin down, as far as genres in which to classify it. I kept thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs,” and the hopeful loser-looking-for-his-moment comedy inspired by that, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.”
I don’t think all of it works. And making a graceful exit counts for something and is the one place where I think West overreaches.
But maybe his on-screen alter ego has it right, even though he knows that this is just a cop out, just an excuse for not really wrestling with that which must be wrestled into some sort of coherent shape.
“It’s not that simple.”
Rating: unrated, a moment of violence, profanity
Cast: Jim Gaffigan, Rhea Seehorn, Katelyn Nacon, Gabriel Rush and Tony Shalhoub
Credits: Scripted and directed by Colin West. A Shout! Factory release.
Running time: 1:42