Comedian Jim Gaffigan plays a dual role in Colin West’s family melodrama Linoleum.
As Cameron, he is the picture of middle-aged disappointment and regret. He resembles an absent-minded professor with disheveled blond hair, eyeglasses to counteract his psychological myopia and elbow patches firmly affixed on his tweed jacket. His marriage with Erin (Rhea Seehorn) is on a path of diminishing returns. After sharing many years and resentments, they’ve reached a point of conversational stasis. Familiarity has bred not contempt, but endless frustration.
During the day, he’s the host of a TV science program on a local public broadcasting station—Ohio’s version of an analog-era Bill Nye. But he really wanted to spend his life in the stars. NASA, unfortunately, rejects his occasional job applications.
Cameron’s melancholic expression deepens when his doppelgänger drives a crimson-colored sports car into town and parks it across the street. As played by Gaffigan, red-haired and mustachioed Kent appears to have the life Cameron aspired to but couldn’t achieve. These potential adversaries seem set on a collision course.
But West, who also wrote the film, says he had other plans in mind for Cameron’s story arc.
“The movie is less about regret and more about dreams—the glass is half full,” the director explains.
Linoleum, he admits, is an autumnal film, set in the weeks leading up to Halloween. But by the end, he says, “It becomes a more hopeful look at what you can still accomplish by following your dreams.” Although Elbow’s “Lippy Kids” isn’t on the soundtrack, Cameron embodies the yearning you hear in Gavin Garvey’s voice when he sings, “Do they know those days are golden? / Build a rocket, boys!”
For a thirtysomething director at the beginning of a promising career, West’s portrait of middle-aged tristesse feels authentic. It helps that Mollie Wartelle’s production design grounds the characters’ homes and offices with peculiar pieces of interior décor. Linoleum spends a lot of time with Cameron in his basement. Among his treasures there is an astronaut’s silver spacesuit standing motionless in place. Several times throughout the film, West turns his camera on its smashed glass faceplate and lingers on it. That sense of loss and waywardness increases when a car and, later, a NASA spacecraft crash-land in Cameron’s neighborhood.
West resides in Los Angeles but he’s a native Ohioan. Linoleum is set there, in a small suburb.
“I have really good memories there. I think about it often,” he says. “My interest in nostalgia is rooted in yearning. I guess that’s the definition of nostalgia, right?”
Like Cameron’s basement, the director says his studio contains many old signs and cameras. His girlfriend affectionately calls him “Grandpa.” Accounting for his sensibility, he says, “I’m living in a different era than everybody else around me.”
The question West poses isn’t whether or not Cameron will reach the stars. It’s whether or not, over the course of a lifetime, he continues his attempts to reach them. Linoleum largely depends on Gaffigan’s portrayal of the abashed Cameron (Kent is an infrequent though menacing presence). Neither character would make an appearance in one of his stand-up routines. “[Gaffigan] worked well for the role because there’s a sadness to it but there’s also a happy-go-lucky TV show personality side,” the director says. “He always wanted to be more of a dramatic actor. He’s been doing roles in indie films for many years.”
Gaffigan’s work in the film Light from Light (2019) confirmed for West that he was an actor first and a comedian second. Once on set, his star took command of the characters, both surprising the director and making his job easier.
Now, West believes the actor is at a turning point in his career. “He’s going to be in Disney’s Peter Pan & Wendy with David Lowery directing, which is a huge movie.”
Seehorn’s Erin arrives on screen equally disappointed in her life, except she’s turned brittle and bristles with impatience when Cameron moves away from his adult responsibilities toward what she sees as his folly. Once his co-star on the science program, she left the show and settled into a desk job at a museum. The root cause of their marital tension, however, is deliberately vague. West wanted to portray a husband and wife who are still in love and care for each other.
“Without that connection or spark, the movie would die,” he said. “It’s got this big sci-fi façade but when it comes down to it, it’s a multi-generational love story.”
Linoleum is Cinequest’s opening night film, screening at 7:30pm on Aug. 16 at the California Theatre, San Jose.