“PUZZLE” — 2½ stars — Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman, Austin Abrams, Bubba Weiler; R (language); in general release
“Puzzle” is … puzzling.
Marc Turtletaub’s film, which is a remake of an Argentine film from 2010, follows a suburban housewife as her life takes a strange turn thanks to an unexpected birthday present.
Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is a mild-mannered housewife in present-day Connecticut, living with her auto mechanic husband Louie (David Denman) and her two sons, Gabe (Austin Abrams) and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler).
They seem like a perfectly normal household by all appearances — working hard, eating meals together and attending regular Mass. Ziggy hasn’t quite found his place in the world, so he’s working in his dad’s shop. Gabe is preparing to apply for college and is looking at the world through the eyes of his vegan girlfriend Nicki (Liv Hewson).
Agnes and Louie seem to have a happy if routine marriage. It's a little strange that Agnes has done all the decorating and baked the cake for her own birthday party — a sequence that opens the film — but at least her gifts are surprises.
One present — an iPhone — strikes Agnes as an unnecessary extravagance, and she bristles against the idea of “Googling” something. Another — a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle rendering of a world map — sets the film’s plot in motion.
One afternoon, out of curiosity, Agnes pulls out the puzzle and finishes it quickly. She’s very fast, but the effort still takes enough time to throw off her daily chores, and Agnes scrambles to get everything ready for Louie and the boys in time for dinner.
But the seed has been planted. Transfixed by the puzzle, Agnes travels far outside her comfort zone to the New York City shop where the puzzle was purchased. This leads her to a wealthy jigsaw puzzle enthusiast named Robert (Irrfan Khan), who convinces her to be his partner in an upcoming national competition.
As their partnership begins, the conflict is in place since Agnes chooses to lie to her family about her extracurricular activities. It doesn’t take much imagination to speculate on the future of her relationship with Robert.
Enhanced by moody, dimly lit cinematography that depends on natural light, “Puzzle” explores themes of independence, personal growth and family commitment, among others. Macdonald does an excellent job of bringing life to a humble character who is discovering something new about herself, and Khan’s Robert is just quirky enough to be compelling without being distracting.
At the same time, Turtletaub’s low-key effort strains to move the emotional meter, and in terms of story, Agnes’ actions are often difficult to justify. Though far from perfect, her family — and particularly her husband — doesn’t feel deserving of her actions. You could argue that making Louie more domineering would have undercut the film’s subtle tone and that “Puzzle” is about an imperfect woman coming out of her shell, but there’s still a sense that the story needs more of a payoff.
The result is a film that is thoughtful but a little too ambiguous — and a little too incomplete to leave you satisfied. At one point, Robert explains that the jigsaw puzzle is one of the few things that can offer a sense of completion and perfection in life. It’s a good idea, but even as a film, “Puzzle” could still offer a little more perfection than it does.
“Puzzle” is rated R for infrequent strong language and some mild sexual content; running time: 103 minutes.