Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Screenwriter: Oren Moverman, adapted from the Argentine movie “Rompecabezas” (“Puzzle”)
Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman, Bubba Weiler, Austin Abrams
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 6/7/18
Opens: July 27. 2018
If Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) ever gets tired of working on jigsaw puzzles she can always find a job with the FBI putting together attorney Michael Cohen’s shredded documents. “Puzzle” is the story of how a mousy woman emerges from her restricted life when she discovers a talent for putting together 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles in competitive times. But of course this is not a movie about those pieces that come in big boxes with bright pictures on the covers. The real puzzle is why Agnes let herself be overcome by inertia spending so much time vacuuming, baking, and catering hand and foot to her husband Louie (David Denman) and her two grown sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams).
That should remind us that this is a feminist film, one not about an activist taking part in reproductive rights marches or complaining that the corporation does not pay her on the same scale as men doing the same job. No, “Puzzle” is about a mousy woman, a regular churchgoer who says grace before dinner and who looks out for everyone’s welfare but her own. When she meets Robert (Irrfan Khan), her life changes, though given the final, open-ended puzzling minute of the film, we in the audience might be tempted to say “Huh? That’s what she decides in the end?”
The Bridgeport, Connecticut family live in a nice but modest house in a blue collar section accessible by train to New York City. So far as we know Agnes had never been to Grand Central Station before she finds her new talent and might just as soon be living in Pyongyang as she does not use computers or smartphones and travels only to the family lakeside home for summer vacations. Her two sons had not been to college though Ziggy wants to culinary school, to the dismay of his hulking dad who looks cooking is for women. When Louie breaks a dish, Agnes looks under the chairs to piece it together, not because she cannot afford to replace it but because she has a subconscious talent for putting things together. When she gets a birthday present of a jigsaw puzzle—after baking the cake and cleaning for her own party—she surprises herself by putting it together in short order, then travels to a Manhattan specialty store to buy more jigsaw puzzles. When she sees a note in the store from Robert asking for a partner to compete with him in a puzzle contest, she applies, gets the job, and spends two days every week training for the competition. Of course this sheltered, middle-aged woman grows romantically involved with her Indian-American partner and he, a rich inventor whose wife had left him, reciprocates. Poof: she’s out of her shell and ready for real life.
Casting Kelly Macdonald could not have been a better choice. She is an iconic mousy stay-at-home mother (Not Macdonald—her character Agnes) who for the most part would have ended her days vacuuming, baking, cooking, picking up her husband’s Manchego cheese. As for David Denman’s Louie, if you have a stereotyped view of burly men who work with their hands in garages, you will discover how gentle he can be, but there’s a limit to how much wandering he can put up with given her lying to him about where she goes when she leave for days at a time (he thinks she’s visiting her injured aunt). As for India-born Irrfan Khan, his character is rich from inventing some use for magnets but he is a lonely man who does not often go outside. Khan has acted in more experimental movies before, groundbreaking ones like “Life of Pi,” which is Ang Lee’s colorful look at a survivor of a sea disaster, “The Lunchbox,” which is Ritesh Batra’s look at the connection between a young woman and an older man who build a fantasy life together, and Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” about a Mumbai teen accused of cheating on a quiz program.
For his part, director Marc Turtletaub’s “Gods Behaving Badly,” an imaginative romp of Greek gods turned loose in New York may be more boldly imaginative than his current feature, but “Puzzle,” on a lower key, is an adorable, absorbing view of a woman turned feminist, a movie that sustains our involvement largely from Kelly Macdonald’s light-handed performance. Christopher Nor filmed “Puzzle” in Yonkers, New York to stand in for Bridgeport, Connecticut and features a memorable rendition of “Ave Maria” by Matthew Shifrin.
Rated R. 103 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B
Overall – B+