A reminder that quiet and subtle are not the same things, Marc Turtletaub’s earnest, compassionate character study Puzzle — adapted from Argentinean director Natalia Smirnoff’s superior Rompecabezas (2010) — is likely to charm and move audiences even as its particulars often fail to suggest the real world. That’s a testament to the strength of the original story, sort of a Doll’s House but with jigsaw puzzles, and to the performances of Turtletaub’s cast, especially Kelly Macdonald. That underemployed Scottish marvel plays Agnes, a Connecticut housewife whose days revolve around her boys: nudging her mechanic husband from his snoring slumber, whipping up breakfast for him and their two sons, cleaning up and running errands, then prepping a dinner that includes niceties (she stuffed the chicken with roasted garlic!) nobody wants to hear about.
The opening sequence, a piercing suite of routine drudgery, finds Agnes decking out the house she grew up in for a party. In a fetching floral print dress she might have made herself, she vacuums, hangs up a Happy Birthday banner, arranges balloons, ices a cake, and it’s only when we see her opening presents that we understand it’s her own birthday. That’s also the moment, less than five minutes in, when it becomes clear that something’s off in Turtletaub and screenwriter Oren Moverman and Polly Mann’s transposition of Smirnoff’s film: At what birthday party does the honoree unwrap her gifts by herself, when the guests have all gone home? And why the hell does someone give her an iPhone? Isn’t this movie set in the ‘50s?
It’s not. It just looks that way at first. I’m not sure that that’s intentional, a fake-out crafted to jar us. It’s just that, despite excellent production design that captures the surfaces of downwardly mobile suburban America, Agnes’s world is curiously unfixed. No media seems to penetrate her life. Unlike the real American homes the filmmakers take such pains to evoke, Agnes’s is silent, void of the clamor of TV or radio or computers. She’s forty-ish, a resident of today’s world, not a hostage or member of some technology-eschewing sect. And yet when she gets the urge to buy herself some complicated jigsaw puzzles, the only way she can think of to do it is to drive to New Rochelle and take a train to a Manhattan specialty store. She doesn’t even know that online shopping is a possibility. She can’t pronounce "Google" without making a face like she’s bitten into a bad plum, and when her son’s girlfriend announces that she’s vegan, the concept simply doesn’t compute: Not even chicken?
It’s one thing to make a film about a Connecticut woman alienated from the Internet, from specialty diets, from that utterly alien iPhone that she dismisses as a “little robot” she’ll only use in emergencies. It’s another to ask us to accept that she doesn’t even know these things exist. Surely her husband, a boor who’s trying not to be quite as boorish as his dad was, watches some of the sitcoms that jeer at all these aspects of contemporary life. So what gives here? Agnes drives, does the shopping, attends church meetings, cares for relatives. Why is she written like one of Kimmy Schmidt’s bunker women on her first day back in civilization?
Since it’s hard to buy the character, it’s hard to buy the story, no matter how good Macdonald is, no matter how pricklingly tense and tender her scenes are with David Denman, who plays the husband. Puzzle, of course, turns on those puzzles. After receiving a 1,000-piece jigsaw as a gift at that party, Agnes discovers a surprise talent and passion: She can put one together in just a chunk of an afternoon. Then, on that wholly unnecessary trip to New York — a trip she keeps a secret from her family — she yoinks a phone number from a flier. A stranger is seeking a partner to participate in puzzle competitions. Will she dare text him?
She does, and soon both the film and her life perk up. The puzzle pro, played with an air of exquisite boredom by a very funny Irrfan Khan, is crafted along the lines of romance-novel hero. He’s a listless millionaire inventor whose brownstone contains not a Fifty Shades sex dungeon, but a room overlooking a park and dedicated solely to jigsaws. Of course, Agnes agrees to partner up with him and, of course, he comes to prize her quirks and beauty. To its credit, neither Puzzle nor Agnes mistakes a chance at urbane adultery for a simple catch-all cure for her problems. The speeches about puzzle-solving being like life itself could be much worse, but the filmmakers can’t find a way to make sorting pieces and steadily placing them any more dramatic than it sounds.
You might wonder, as all this slowly unfolds, why Agnes covers up her visits to New York City with an easily disprovable lie, or why she can’t find it in herself to say to her family, “I’m interested in competitive puzzling.” Turns out it’s not just a lifetime of suppressing her own desires as she serves others. Seeing a jigsaw she’s working on at home, the husband heel-turns and snarls that this hobby is “childish,” with such ferocity you might expect he’ll reveal later that a puzzle killed his mother. Eventually, inevitably, and (I’m sorry to report) somewhat hilariously, he destroys one as Agnes attempts to complete it. Those scenes are thankless, but Denman and the rest of the cast each invest the best moments with delicate power: A long, single-take scene of husband and wife brushing their teeth suggests a long shared history, and a romantic camping weekend is moving — even convincing. The same goes for Agnes’s interactions with her sons, scenes so shrewdly written, staged, shot and acted that they emphasize the rest of the movie’s flaws rather than make up for them. Clearly everyone involved knows something of what life is like, so why does Puzzle so rarely resemble it?