Jim Gaffigan Goes ‘Above and Beyond’ in Linoleum
Linoleum is a challenging film to talk about fully without spoiling what it’s really saying. It is a film with a twist, but it’s not really about that; The film is not trying to be coy that there is something more to the story than what’s on the surface. And it’s not trying to be a puzzle for the audience to solve, either; The film’s not looking to give the audience all the pieces it needs to work out what the bigger picture is ahead of it being revealed. The best I might be able to say to describe Linoleum is that it’s something like a dream that only comes into focus right before you wake up. The heart of the story is a fairly grounded family drama, overlapping with a coming-of-age story, along with a story of personal crisis; but, ultimately, the film has even greater ambitions than all of that.
Written and directed by Colin West, Linoleum is ostensibly the story of Cameron Edwin (Jim Gaffigan), the middle-aged host of a little-watched children’s science program, Above, and Beyond. He is currently married to his wife Erin (Rhea Seehorn), the former cohost and co-creator of the show. Frustrated with the show’s struggles to find an audience, she left Above and Beyond for a job at a local air and space museum, and we learn at the top of the story that, though they’re still living together, Erin is in the midst of serving Cameron with divorce papers. They have two children, Nora (Katelyn Nacon), who is in high school, and her younger brother Sam.
We’re meeting Cameron, Erin, and Nora at a tumultuous time in their lives, particularly for Cameron. He is feeling unsettled in his life. His show is struggling and about to be taken away from him; his wife is leaving him; he’s feeling regret over never having fulfilled his dream of working for NASA, and coping with it being too late for that now. Also, Cameron is starting to watch his father fade away as he struggles with worsening dementia.
Erin still loves her husband, but she sees how lost he is, and is letting go of him now so she can move on to the next stage of her life. She has her own dreams of working as an aerospace technician and is entertaining taking another museum job two hours away that will get her closer to that goal.
Nora’s struggling with all there is that comes with being young and in high school, but compounded by confusion about her sexuality. Nora is a model of how most anyone should wish they were in high school, though. She’s mixed up, but only because she’s still working out who she will be. Otherwise, she is happy and confident being who she thinks she is so far.
It’s Cameron that is the most lost, though. Part of what is amplifying his discontent is that the person who has been chosen to replace him as the host of Above & Beyond is the person he wishes he had become, a former Astronaut named Kent Armstrong (also played by Gaffigan), who has also just moved in across the street with his son Marc (Gabriel Rush). Marc is also trying to find his way in the world, as an always-on-the-move military kid trying to live up to the expectations of an incredibly demanding father. Marc is the new kid, starting the school year late, but he ends up being placed in the same class as Nora. They take to one another quickly and form an undefined relationship of sorts, but one that will be forcefully resisted by Marc’s father, who doesn’t want his son hanging out with someone like Nora.
The inciting event for the story is that, while all of these issues are bubbling away, a literal manifestation of Cameron’s dream crash lands in his backyard, in the form of an old capsule from the space program that had been abandoned in orbit during a previous mission. No organization is entirely clear about whose responsibility the capsule is, so the Edwin family is ordered out of their home while the matter is investigated. Erin’s sister agrees to take them in, but she clearly doesn’t approve of Cameron and seems to be the biggest cheerleader for Erin and Cameron getting divorced. Feeling unwelcome in his sister-in-law’s home, Cameron moves back into their condemned house; And, with no job to occupy his days, he pulls the capsule out of the crater in his backyard, and decides to start building a rocket of his own in his garage.
Jim Gaffigan is truly wonderful in this film, and not at all what I expected. He has no trouble holding the screen in two different roles. His performance as Kent Armstrong is so distinct from his Cameron character that it wasn’t until someone else in the story mentioned their resemblance that I realized Gaffigan was playing both. Gaffigan’s Cameron is believable as a kid’s science host in the spirit of Bill Nye and a dad any kid would want; And, maybe more impressive, behind his ever-present business suit, and slick backed hair, and precisely clipped mustache, Gaffigan’s Kent is genuinely threatening as an ex-military former astronaut, who expects the world, including his young son, to conform to his high expectations.
To say more about the plot would begin to spoil things more than I would like, but I will say that at this point in the story, we’re in a very strange place. There is something just a little bit off about everything we’re seeing. We are told enough to make it credible that Cameron could have the degrees and know-how to refurbish the capsule, but if it crash-landed it’s still odd that it survived well enough to be refurbished in the first place; Also, it’s perhaps odder still that no one ever comes to take the capsule out of his backyard. The film mostly feels grounded, but at the same time there are these strange elements that keep popping up, like Cameron having always wanted to be an astronaut, only to lose his job to a former astronaut named Armstrong, who just happens to move in across the street from him, and just happens to be his doppelgänger.
Without talking any more about the details of the story, I do want to talk a bit about how deeply the story connected to me. Besides Cameron, I could see something of myself in all the characters of the film, like it was all a bit like watching the story of my life behind me and the life still ahead of me. To more concretely tie this to the central metaphor of the film, it's like all the characters were the components of one multistage rocket lifting off. In Nora and Marc, I could see all the bad and good in being young and lost, and how much it helps at that time to find somebody to go through it with. In Sam, who becomes more crucial and meaningful to me each time I rewatch the film, I can see all the unexpected things that shape our lives in all the ways we can never plan for. In Cameron and Erin, I can see the recognition of finding yourself in a life that wasn’t what you planned and the rush of deciding that there is still time to do something different. And, in Cameron’s dad, I can see the reminder that even if all stories have to have an end, there can still be a good story along the way. Taken as a piece, they all tie together like the pieces of a single life. It’s a wonderful film that truly rewards each rewatch, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.