There are familiar faces on the indie movie scene who pop up at film festivals like SXSW regularly. The very presence of people like Jim Gaffigan, Patton Oswalt, and Alison Brie can often go a long way to legitimizing a young filmmaker’s dream project. That creative goodwill can give a fledgling feature a foundation, but it’s what gets built on that base that really matters. While I adore all three of the aforementioned performers, and they give their all to their newest SXSW productions, they all just barely miss for me, largely due to a loose filmmaking structure that often destroys even the best indie intentions.
Take Colin West’s “Linoleum,” a film with so many good ideas, especially in its final ten minutes, but without the clear vision to coalesce them into something that works from beginning to end. Part of the problem here is degree of difficulty in that West is trying to do something kind of like Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” wherein reality and fantasy blur, but he’s almost unwilling to really dive into the deep end of weird cinema. Too much of “Linoleum” plays out like thin nostalgia before the film takes a turn into the surreal that it needed to have more of from the very beginning. “Linoleum” struggles greatly with tone, but I do admire the effort from all involved, especially Gaffigan, a household name who takes the time to support and encourage ambitious projects like this one.
Gaffigan plays Cameron Edwin, the host of a local science show with echoes of Bill Nye or Mr. Wizard (for readers old enough to get that reference). Cameron tells his daughter Nora (Katelyn Nacon) about how there are two kinds of people in the world—astronauts and astronomers. Cameron has become more of the latter but still dreams of going into space himself. As he’s dropping an application to NASA in a mailbox at the opening of the film, a sports car literally falls from the sky, the body of an actual astronaut tumbling out of the driver’s side door. Also played by Gaffigan, it’s the new guy in town, a sort of riff on “The Double” in that he’s the slightly more stylish, successful, and refined version of Cameron. He moves in across the street and Nora and the double’s son Marc (Gabriel Rush) get closer while Cameron’s wife Erin (Rhea Seehorn) finalizes their divorce. Then a rocket literally falls from the sky too.
What is happening in “Linoleum”? At first, it feels like a commentary on feelings of failure in middle-age. Can a man just disappear? Cameron loses his job; his marriage is crumbling; his father is dying. He’s at one of those turning points in life wherein a man wonders what role he’s going to play now that all of those who needed him are moving on. However, there’s an uncertainty from the beginning of West’s film that makes it clear that not everything is what it seems. I just wish the film felt a bit more confident in its tone instead of feeling like it’s treading water until its undeniably emotional climax. There’s a difference between building to a powerful ending like “Linoleum” and merely delaying it, and I’m not convinced that West accomplishes the former. One could really watch the last fifteen minutes of his film and get nearly as much out of it as someone who sees the whole thing. However, there’s no denying the finale is going to emotionally rock some people who will forgive all of the previous missteps. If only life could be that simple.
Writer/director Jeff Baena has quietly developed an incredibly talented group of performers with whom he collaborates repeatedly and he reunites some of the cast of his “The Little Hours” and “Horse Girl” for his most loosely constructed film to date, the travel comedy “Spin Me Round,” a film with some fun performances and great scenes, but a sense that it doesn’t quite all add up to what it could have with a bit more refinement in writing or editing. This a modest character study masquerading as a wacky European comedy, and it doesn’t quite gel enough as either. It’s best approached as a fun hang-out movie with a great cast. Almost like the mediocre chain restaurant food that its heroine serves, it’s better if one can just enjoy it on its own terms instead of imagining what it might have been with a revised recipe.
The always-great Alison Brie plays Amber, a manager of a chain restaurant in California called Tuscan Grove, an Olive Garden-style establishment wherein the white sauce on the Fettucine Alfredo is squirted out of a tube instead of simmered in a pan. She is informed that she’s one of the best managers in the Tuscan Grove dynasty and that honor has awarded her a trip to Italy to learn about the many culinary delicacies that have been imported and simplified at her restaurant. She will be wined and dined, and possibly even meet the charismatic founder and CEO Nick, played with charming idiocy by Alessandro Nivola. Looking for romance, Amber hopes she gets “Under the Tuscan Sun.” She does not.
First, there’s the goofy array of fellow Tuscan Grove employees on the trip, including the troubled Deb (Molly Shannon), egotistical Fran (Tim Heidecker), and exuberant Dana (the very funny Zach Woods). And then Amber meets Nick’s assistant Kat (Aubrey Plaza), who clearly targets our heroine as someone to bring to Nick’s boat for a romantic escapade. Who is Kat exactly? We can tell we can’t trust Nick, but why? And where exactly is all of this going?
“Spin Me Round” is a slow-burn comedy, best appreciated in moments along Amber’s journey like the awkward seduction by Nick, a crazy night with Kat, or a shared paranoia with Dana. Brie is a great collaborator, eager to find different energies for each scene while also keeping Amber consistent. She’s really underrated. However, this film doesn’t quite know what to do with this complex character. It’s the kind of movie that starts down an interesting road like the forming dynamic between Amber and Kat, only to get distracted by something else. It feels so loosely assembled that it kind of comes apart by the time it’s over, like an Olive Garden meal that’s reasonably satisfying while eating it and totally forgotten the next day.
One thing that could be said about James Morosini’s “I Love My Dad” is that it’s definitely not forgettable. Reportedly based on one of the most insane true stories ever put on film, it’s got a premise that’s a tonal minefield, the kind of thing that Bobcat Goldthwait would turn into the darkest humor or Todd Solondz would mine for shock value. I think Morosini’s proximity to his own story—he also stars and directs—could be the fatal flaw here because he inherently views all of this through a different lens. He brings so much personal baggage, but he fails to figure out how to walk the tonal tightrope of this story in a way that makes it as engaging to viewers cinematically as it would be just hearing this crazy tale at a bar. Oswalt undeniably gives his all to it, but one wishes a different director had been hired to break this screenplay out and find its full potential.
Franklin Green (Morosini) has had enough of his selfish father Chuck (Oswalt), cutting him off entirely from his life. When Franklin blocks Chuck on social media, dad hits rock bottom, trying to figure out how to stay informed on his son’s life, especially given the fact that his boy recently attempted suicide. A colleague at work (the always welcome Lil Rel Howery) tells Chuck that he once created a fake profile to keep cyber-track of an ex-girlfriend, and Chuck creates Becca Thompson, someone new for Franklin to talk to online. And he does. Before long, Franklin falls in love with Becca, and, yes, Chuck has catfished his son. It gets worse before it gets better.
The premise of “I Love My Dad” is set up very early, so it becomes an exercise in trying to figure out how this story is going to end. How far will Chuck go? And what will Franklin do when he finds out? The film often feels a bit too forgiving of Chuck, although Rachel Dratch is great as the voice of reason, a girlfriend of Chuck’s who is aghast when she discovers what he’s doing. There needed to be a bit more of that—a bit more balance to Chuck’s legitimately insane and dangerous course of action. As it is, “I Love My Dad” feels tonally adrift, stuck in a comedy/drama dead zone until its final act when Oswalt goes earnestly all-in on his character, but Morosini can’t figure out how to end this story. It’s probably because he’s too tied to the reality and to his own conflicted feelings about his father. Those often don’t have a satisfying ending in real life either.