It’s Not that Simple
Linoleum ★★★1/2 (out of 4 stars)
You know you’re in another world—the world of low-budget cinema or of “willing suspension of disbelief,” or both—when a wacky, middle-aged scientist whose only job is as host of a TV science program for children, “Above and Beyond,” that airs at midnight, and his teenage new neighbor bypass the yellow tape of the authorities to examine the site in the scientist’s suburban back yard where the debris from the Apollo 10 rocket (launched with a crew of 3 in 1969) has landed. The hole it makes in the earth is small and tidy, and the rocket’s parts, including its heat shield, are remarkably intact. The teenager Marc (Gabriel Rush, veteran of several Wes Anderson films) suggests it might be possible to build a rocket from the remains. “It’s not that simple,” responds the scientist, Cameron Edwin (well-known comedian Jim Gaffigan). “Maybe it is,” says Marc.
And the same could be said about this charming, funny, quirky, complex yet simple feature, the second from director and writer Colin West. As the film’s convoluted and mind-bending wrap-up reveals, Marc is more than a teenage neighbor—much more—as is his father, Kent Armstrong, who has survived a drop from the sky in a red sedan. “That guy looks like a younger me,” Cameron says.
Cameron uses the difference between an astronomer and an astronaut to define what he is and how he feels: an astronomer observes the stars; the astronaut is in them. His dream—now, of course, in the rear-view mirror—is to be an astronaut. A mix of the rational and the intuitive (or irrational), he’s a dreamer. Kent, his alter ego (one way to put it), is a remnant of the Victorian era, an abusive, authoritarian, Bible-thumping rationalist, at best the “astronomer.” When he takes over Cameron’s TV show, he’s not goofy or entertaining, just boring.
While most films that deal with personal difficulties are limited to one portion of the life cycle, as in the “Coming of Age” genre, this one manages the trifecta: Coming of Age, Coming of Middle Age, and Coming of Old Age. At one end of the spectrum there’s Cameron’s father (he too could be more than that) [Roger Hendricks Simon], living with dementia in an old-age home. At the other end, and occupying more of the drama, there’s Marc, and Cameron’s daughter Nora (Katelyn Nacon of TV’s “The Walking Dead”), who expresses the feminism of that period. They meet in a perfectly orchestrated classroom scene, constructed around a lesson on the concept of probability, at once mathematically sound and intuitively absurd: that in a room of 23 people, 2 will share the same birthday (significantly, in this case, transgressive Halloween). Their relationship—courting/non-courting, dating/non-dating, flirting/non-flirting, all the while struggling with parents who fail to appreciate them—is hardly original, but here, as elsewhere, the script is so good that it doesn’t matter.
The Coming-of-Middle-Age part of the narrative is Cameron’s, of course, but also his wife Erin’s (Rhea Seehorn, of TV’s “Better Call Saul”). Indeed, she’s at the center of the story, occupying the conceptual space between Cameron’s dreamer and Kent’s domineering rationalist. Erin is the only character who can change. When we first meet her, she’s managing a local Air and Space Center, having apparently given up on her ambition to do something “fantastic.” When offered a “better” job, she turns it down—“it’s someone else’s dream,” she says—a sign that Erin isn’t yet resigned to her fate, to the unfulfilled life.
The story also has a therapist (Tony Shalhoub, much restrained here from his caricature-like father-in-law role in TV’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), whose enigmatic diagnosis, delivered with a finger pointed toward his client’s head, raises the irritating possibility that the whole thing could be the fantasy of an old man with dementia. Maybe so, although that interpretation constrains the film, confining its curious—even magical—elements in a summary way that makes the project less interesting, and less compelling, rather than more. If the story is all a figment of a senile mind, who cares?
West has the movie canon at hand as he evokes other films that feature crazy scientific feats, like “Back to the Future” (1985) and “October Sky” (1999). There’s even an illusion to Antonioni’s “Blow Up” (1966) in the mystery of a photograph; keep an eye out for Cameron and Erin’s younger child, Sam, who never speaks and is played by 6 different actors.
A smart and clever screenplay and superb acting across the board, capped by Gaffigan’s earnest and somewhat disheveled Philip Seymour Hoffman-invoking performance, succeed in creating a world in which one can—and wants to—believe in the power of the imagination, the role of the fantastical, and the will to strive for a satisfying life. It’s been done before, but seldom as well. Put Colin West on your radar. And keep him on a low budget.
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)
Director: Colin West
Starring: Jim Gaffigan, Gabriel Rush, Rhea Seehorn, Katelyn Nacon, Tony Shalhoub, Roger Hendricks Simon
Country: United States
Other Awards: 3 wins and 4 other nominations
Runtime: 101 minutes
Availability: Showing in some art theaters nationally; streaming availability scheduled for March 28; see JustWatch here for future rent or purchase options.
Lead image: Jim Gaffigan as Cameron (Dad) and Rhea Seehorn as Erin (Mom) are the middle of this film’s trifecta: Coming of Age, Coming of Middle Age, and Coming of Old Age.