Jim Gaffigan would not be the first name that comes to mind when thinking of an actor who could handle a challenging dual starring role in a film about the life of the mind, regrets, and emotional inter-connectedness. The actor, primarily and famously more well-known as a stand-up comic with a dry, observational style, certainly has tried his hand at acting but has never achieved much beyond supporting and voiceover performances, best-known for playing himself in his own short-lived television series, The Jim Gaffigan Show. This is why the strangest part about writer/director Colin West’s new dramedy, Linoleum, isn’t so much the weird plot but the fact that Gaffigan is tasked with bringing it home. Even stranger still is that it actually works.
In Linoleum, Gaffigan plays Cam, a disheartened middle-aged man whose life is slowly falling apart. His dreams of being an astronaut still percolate, but he has come to accept the closest he will ever come to space is teaching kids about it on his local access TV show that he shoots from his garage. Cam’s wife, Erin (Rhea Seehorn), is divorcing him, and his kids, Nora (Katelyn Nacon) and Sam (Levi Chapin) want nothing to do with him. When a mysterious car falls from the sky, holding a man who looks exactly like him, and then an errant rocket falls into their backyard, Cam finds it impossible not to see these events as signs that he should re-evaluate his life. But things aren’t as simple as they seem, as Cam follows his trail of regret and hopelessness down an emotional rabbit hole that just may swallow him whole.
In only his third feature, West has written a delightful script that so easily could have followed a predictable path but, instead, subverts every expectation and upends formula while embracing familiar tropes. It’s impossible not to see shades of Donnie Darko and American Beauty in Linoleum, as a dark, subversive undercurrent lurks ominously beneath the seemingly simplistic dime store philosophy at its core. But West never allows the film to be swallowed by its own darkness, even as it rages against the light, the film getting significantly stronger as it goes along, packing a powerhouse final act that not only validates the journey but is surprisingly affecting.
Although Linoleum is built on an intriguing concept, it is, unfortunately, difficult to get past Gaffigan’s overwhelming presence in the film, which ultimately proves to be a disservice and a distraction. This is a film about nuance, and West has crafted a delicately balanced ode to memory and identity, but there is little delicacy in Gaffigan’s performance, which turns out to be quite the elephant in the room. Although there is a warmth and an earnestness at play, he is pretty clumsy and one-note as a performer, which only begs the question of what a different actor might have done with such a textured role. Gaffigan’s shortcomings come through even louder in the dual role he plays of Kent, Cam’s doppelganger who appears out of nowhere and proves to have every characteristic Cam does not. Gaffigan just doesn’t have the chops to bring what is needed. Thankfully, the supporting performances, particularly from Nacon and Seehorn, are moving enough to mostly balance it out and allow West to fine-tune his narrative.
Nacon, who played Enid in several seasons of The Walking Dead, and Seehorn, who shot to critical stardom as Kim Wexler in Better Call Saul, do all the heavy lifting in Linoleum, and they are primarily the reason West’s vision is achieved. Gabriel Rush, who plays Nacon’s teenage love interest, is also effective. Even though West clearly focused the most on Gaffigan’s characters, Nacon, Seehorn, and Rush can find subtexts that elevate their thinly-written characters, much to the film’s benefit.
Linoleum’s intended timelessness works well, and the audience finds itself invested in Cam’s story, especially as the emotional tentacles grab hold in the second half. The film is aloof just enough to provoke the audience’s interest and desire to see where it goes. The moments that feel like redundant, thematic overkill end up paying off massively, making Linoleum one of the first welcome surprises of the year.
It does take a bit to balance itself out, but once you get used to the elephant in the room, Linoleum finds its way into your heart and surprises you with its offbeat sincerity.
LINOLEUM OPENS IN SELECT THEATERS ON FEBRUARY 24, 2023