This adaptation of Natalia Smirnoff’s 2011 Argentine drama “Rompecabezas” is the first directorial effort of long-time producer Marc Turtletaub, and like 2016’s “Indignation,” helmed by another producer-turned-neophyte director, James Schamus, it’s smooth, assured and impeccably crafted. Schamus, however, was working from extraordinary material, a novel by Philip Roth. By contrast “Puzzle,” while treating of an admittedly significant subject—female liberation from societal constraints—does so in a relatively lightweight fashion that might be described as a throwback to women’s pictures of an earlier era.
The element in the film that unquestionably possesses dramatic heft is the lead performance of Kelly Macdonald. She plays Agnes, a mousy Connecticut housewife who devotes herself almost exclusively to caring for her family—her big bear of a husband Louie (David Denman), who runs a garage, and her two sons, outgoing Gabe (Austin Abrams), who’s applying to college, and more subdued, sensitive Ziggy (Bubba Weiler), who’s unhappy working at his dad’s shop. In the film’s first sequence we watch as she prepares an elaborate birthday party that turns out to be for herself, and her only time outside the house alone appears to be when she goes grocery shopping or works with the ladies’ society at the neighborhood Catholic church.
One of the birthday gifts she receives changes things for her. It’s a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle that she completes in just a couple of hours, and her success at it prompts her to take the train to a specialty shop in New York City, where she picks up not just two more puzzles that she quickly polishes off, but the phone number of a man advertising for a “puzzle partner.” It’s with some trepidation that she calls and is invited to a rather stunning house in the city where she meets Robert (Irrfan Khan), a suave fellow, rich on the income from a single major patent, who quickly discovers her uncanny skill and enlists her as his partner in a national championship competition; we later learn that he’s recently divorced from his wife, and former partner.
Agnes arranges to come to Robert’s place on a regular schedule for practice sessions, but keeps her comings and goings secret from family and friends, using a desire to help out an injured aunt (Audrie Neenan) as an excuse. But Louie, a devoted but possessive husband, is irritated by her failure to stick to the routine he’s gotten accustomed to, and by Agnes’ suggestion that they sell off the lakefront cabin he’s always loved to pay for Gabe’s college. The domestic balance is further disrupted when Gabe announces that he’d prefer to take a year off and go to Tibet with his activist girlfriend (Liv Hewson), and by Ziggy’s admission that he’d like to go to cooking school.
Meanwhile, Agnes finds herself attracted to Robert, a man totally apart from her ordinary world, who finds her both accomplished and beautiful and admits he’s attracted to her, too. She’s torn between what she knows, which can now seem bitterly unsatisfying, and what life with Robert might be. She’ll have to confront a major turning-point if she and Robert win the championship, which carries an invitation to the world competition in Belgium.
The plight of Agnes in “Puzzle” comes across very much like an updated version of one that a major Hollywood contract star might have faced in a film of the 1940s. One of the throwaway bits early on even points up the behind-the-times nature of Agnes’ homebody life: another of the birthday gifts she receives is her first smart phone, which she dismisses as unnecessary and only gradually comes to use. The film’s metaphors are clunkily retrograde, too. The whole jigsaw motif is awfully obvious—Agnes is searching for the missing piece in her life, you see? (In addition, the depiction of people swiftly putting puzzles together is about as convincing as the sequences in movies about painters when the artist is moved by a sudden spurt of inspiration and attacks the canvas with relish.) But the revelation that Robert’s money-making invention was “about magnets” is a pretty clumsy reference to the laws of attraction, too. And many will find the picture’s resolution—which finds Agnes striking out on her own, undertaking a journey that’s meant to carry a degree of emotional weight it doesn’t really earn, unsatisfying.
Nonetheless the film is worth seeing despite its musty take on female empowerment, not only because Turteltaub and his behind-the-camera collaborators (production designer Roshelle Berliner, costumer Mirren Gordon-Crozier, cinematographer Christopher Norr and editor Catherine Haight) so effectively capture a sense of place, and because Macdonald’s performance so effectively strikes all the right notes, but because the rest of the cast contribute strong turns as well. Khan, to be sure, is kind of a blank paragon of charm, with a past only sketchily hinted at, but he is nonetheless effortlessly sophisticated and attractive. Moreover Denman—who looks a bit like Vincent D’Onofrio—gives shading and nuance to the genially bovine Louie, and both Abrams and Weiler ring true as his very different sons. Even Neenan seems dead on in her single scene.
“Puzzle” may be an old-fashioned take on a woman’s liberation from a stultifying life, but its high craftsmanship, coupled with Macdonald’s exceptional performance, makes it worthwhile.