On a rainy Sunday afternoon during a recent beach vacation, the weather stranded us inside in search of something to while away the time. Such days are why beach houses always have a jigsaw puzzle or two on the premises. We picked one of 1,000 pieces, a picture of kittens wreaking havoc on a kitchen, and set to work. The weather thankfully improved, and throughout the week anyone in the house who had some free time would sit down with it for a bit. The last piece was put in place on Thursday afternoon.
What took us four days would be accomplished by Agnes (Kelly MacDonald) in four hours, if that. A Hudson Valley housewife who ends to her husband and two teenaged sons, she is ordinarily too busy for such foofaraw. But after an especially wearying evening, she sits down with a newly acquired puzzle and is surprise to see that her mind relishes the challenge.
The evening was so tiring because she spent it tending to the guests at a birthday party, at which she is far too busy serving and cleaning to have a good time. It isn’t until it’s over that we discover that the birthday was hers, And that’s Agnes’s life in a nutshell.
A script contrivance or two brings Agnes to Manhattan and the luxurious if empty home of Robert (Irrfan Khan). A millionaire thanks to a patent he claims to have discovered by sheer accident, he has nothing in common with Agnes other than a skill with puzzles. He needs a new partner for the upcoming competitive puzzle solving competition, at which he and his recently departed wife were the reining champions.
You say you never knew there was such a thing as competitive puzzle solving? Neither did Agnes. As Robert drily observes, “Don’t tell anyone or there’ll be a run on the place”
The tidiness of jigsaw puzzles as a substitutable metaphor for life (unlike life, you can solve them) is so pat that I assumed Puzzle was based on a script by a first-time writer, perhaps begun as a film school writing assignment. To my surprise, it is a remake of a 2009 drama from Argentina. This version was adapted by Oren Overman, whose resume includes such well-regarded independent films as Love & Mercy, The Messenger, and the Bob Dylan pastiche I’m Not There.
That Puzzle comes across as sincere but overdetermined may be the fault of its director, Marc Turtletaub. Better known as the producer of such hits as Little Miss Sunshine and Loving, this is his second stint in the director’s chair. The first, Gods Behaving Badly, a comedy about the Greek gods interfering in the lives of modern mortals, was panned so badly at the one film festival where it was shown in 2013 that it was never shown again. This despite a cast that includes Alicia Silverstone, Sharon Stone, John Turturro, Edie Falco, and Christopher Walken as Zeus. Seems to me that if you have a movie starring Christopher Walken as Zeus and you can’t sell it at least to Netflix, it can only be because you aren’t trying.
Puzzle certainly isn’t a bad movie. It’s mostly disappointing because it seems that it should be better than it is. A team of actors as capable and underused as MacDonald and Khan (one of India’s biggest stars) would ideally have been given a better vehicle, though they bring their best to it. I was also impressed by David Denman as Louie, Agnes’s loving but clueless oaf of a husband, who brings shading to a role that could easily have been a stereotype.