Falling to pieces
As a producer, Marc Turtletaub has been cranking out two or three drippy and formulaic indie films a year since 2004, but the thematically jumbled Puzzle is only his second stint in the director’s chair. Like so many drippy and formulaic indie films before it, Puzzle centers on a repressed and depressed person and their quirky obsession, and most of the movie’s pieces feel like they were borrowed from other boxes. Only a couple of likable actors keep the film from completely falling apart.
Kelly Macdonald stars as the repressed and depressed Agnes, a sheltered Catholic housewife in upstate New York with a clueless husband (David Denman, typecast after playing Roy on The Office) and two growing sons ready to leave the nest. Ever since her debut role in Trainspotting, Macdonald has always been a welcome onscreen presence, and Puzzle offers the actress maybe her meatiest movie role yet. She finds the honesty amongst the inauthenticity of the script, even when her Scottish accent peeks out.
After planning and cleaning up after her own birthday party, Agnes opens Chekhov’s birthday gifts: a smartphone, which she initially regards like an alien intruder, and a 500-piece puzzle that sparks her supposedly dormant intellect. The 40-something Agnes has no interest at all in the iPhone, but alone at home, she assembles the puzzle with a speed and efficiency that seems to awaken something inside. Agnes calls the family member who gifted the puzzle and asks where more boxes can be purchased.
This is where the film’s concept of being poor and sheltered starts to reflect the filmmakers’ own reality of being rich and sheltered. It’s one thing for the suburban Catholic housewife to not know how to use the internet or to express her ignorance about the Buddhist faith of her son’s girlfriend, but Agnes is so sheltered that she’s never heard of stores. How did Agnes feed a family of four without shopping even once in her life? The most repressed and religious people in the world know that Walmart exists.
At any rate, a trip to Walmart wouldn’t set a star-crossed love story in motion, so Agnes takes the subway into New York City to visit the puzzle store where the present was purchased (again, this is a grown woman’s concept of buying a puzzle). A flyer advertising a professional puzzle competitor desperately looking for a partner catches her eye, and she reaches out of her shell using her newfangled smartphone.
The man behind the flyer is Roy (Irrfan Khan, matching and complementing Macdonald’s charm), a lonely divorcee and puzzle fanatic who sees something special in Agnes, and they begin a secret partnership that blossoms into love. This story bears numerous resemblances to Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which co-starred Irrfan Khan as a lonely widower and food fanatic who sees something special in a repressed housewife with a clueless husband and a gift for cooking. Like Puzzle, it was a drippy and formulaic film barely salvaged by likable actors.