In Colin West’s Linoleum, Cameron Edwin (Jim Gaffigan) is a man living flatly. The local children’s television show he hosts airs at midnight, to unsurprisingly minimal viewership. He and his wife Erin (Rhea Seehorn) are on the brink of a quiet, dispassionate divorce. His little blazers have elbow patches. Cameron’s father once told him that there were two types of people on earth: astronomers (or “those that look at the stars”) and astronauts (or “those that swim in them”). Cameron’s quiet, stagnating life makes it clear that he is the kind of person who only looks at the stars.
This nothingness would be a mid-life crisis if Cameron were acting out at all, but he seems destined to quietly take it. Meanwhile, his family — especially precocious teenage daughter Nora (Katelyn Nacon) — are still figuring out where they might end up, still playing with dreams of perhaps being an astronaut instead of an astronomer.
Linoleum deals with the very real, often simultaneously tedious and overwhelming struggle between fearing a boring life and fearing making the wrong, risky choices, but there is also something distinctly peculiar bubbling beneath its surface. In the opening moments of the film, a cherry-red convertible seemingly falls from the sky, startling Cameron, but it is barely discussed outside of some brief comments over dinner. When a man who looks exactly like Cameron takes over his children’s show, he is irritated instead of freaked out. Everything seems just a little off, a little surreal: nonsensical conversations and phrases are repeated, bright primary colors often pop with a storybook vibrance, and certain shots are often actively disorienting in their lighting.
A mysterious satellite crash landing into the Edwin family’s backyard quite literally forces them out of the comfort zone of their suburban home. Cameron is offered an unexpected opportunity to change his trajectory from astronomer to astronaut as he seemingly attempts to rebuild the satellite as a rocket. This shift echoes throughout the family as Erin sits at the precipice of a major change in her career and Nora develops a connection with the new kid in town — Marc (Gabriel Rush) — that risks altering her understanding of her very identity.
Linoleum sways increasingly between these somewhat mundane suburban shifts and the progressively surreal space they are taking place in, eventually offering a stunning final sequence that is both moving and unexpected in its tying together of Linoleum’s collection of little familial narratives. That said, while this explains the strange, detached, and almost derealized feeling of the majority of the film, its emotional and narrative impact feels perhaps a little late, as so much of the movie is spent trying to track emotions and internal struggles that often feel distanced due to Linoleum’s almost dreamlike tone.
Linoleum is an interesting attempt at investigating the chapters in our lives in which even mundane forks in the road have the potential to powerfully affect us in a fresh and unexpected manner. However, it suffers slightly from presenting most of the film at a tonally compelling — yet somewhat detached — distance.