'Puzzle': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Fits together nicely.

Kelly Macdonald ('Boardwalk Empire,' 'Trainspotting') stars as a mousy housewife who discovers a talent for jigsaw puzzles in a directing debut from producer Marc Turtletaub ('Little Miss Sunshine').

Sweet, low-key drama Puzzle stars the always watchable Kelly Macdonald as a downtrodden working-class housewife who discovers she has an incredible aptitude for assembling jigsaw puzzles. This directing debut for experienced producer Marc Turtletaub (Little Miss Sunshine, Loving) ticks along pleasantly, driven by an efficient if slightly bland script by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann, adapted from an Argentinian film called The Puzzle by Natalia Smirnoff. Other assets include a fine supporting cast, led by Bollywood superstar and now in-demand Hollywood supporting player Irrfan Khan (The Life of Pi, The Lunchbox) as an extramarital love interest for Macdonald’s character. The package’s gentle humanism will appeal particularly to middle-aged and older viewers, an increasingly content-hungry niche worldwide and, umm…people who like jigsaw puzzles.

To be honest, the puzzle-assembling part of the story is not critical to the action. That’s just as well because some, on hearing a one-line description of the plot, might imagine this would be only marginally more interesting than watching a film about drying paint. Instead, the gift for puzzles that central character Agnes (Macdonald) discovers in herself turns out to be a catalyst for change and an obvious metaphor, a sign that personal fulfillment and romantic love are the missing pieces in her life.

A resident of Bridgeport, Connecticut (Yonkers, New York, served as the actual location), fortysomething Agnes is first introduced as she prepares meticulously for a birthday party in her home, a modest row house whose brown color scheme and faded patterned wallpaper suggests that it hasn’t been decorated since the 1970s, when it belonged to Agnes’ parents. She vacuums, straightens knickknacks and bakes a cake, then serves all the guests drinks and snacks, waiting hand and foot on her husband Louie (David Denman) and full-grown sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams). It’s only when she brings out the cake with lit candles and the guests sing “Happy birthday, dear Agnes!” do we realize she’s the birthday girl as well as the hostess, caterer and cleaner.

Agnes is less enthusiastic about getting a smartphone for the first time (“I guess I can use it for emergencies,” she shrugs) than she is about a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that she completes in a few quiet hours one day. After dismantling it and redoing it a few more times, she hops a train to Lower Manhattan to buy more puzzles at a specialist store. While there, she spots a sign by the cash register: A puzzle champion is seeking a partner for competitions. Agnes calls the number on the tear-off strip and ends up meeting Robert (Khan), a very rich man, judging by his huge if sparsely decorated apartment, who made his fortune designing a patent that has something to do with magnets (another thinly disguised metaphor).

Although it’s an obvious narrative inevitability that Agnes and Robert will end up romantically involved, both the filmmakers and cast take pains not to stack the deck — or force the puzzle pieces, if you prefer — too easily in favor of the affair. Louie is a bit of an old-school sexist dolt, but he’s not a bad guy, just one limited by his narrow cultural horizons. And there’s something hilariously honest in a way films seldom are about these things when Agnes admits sex with Robert “wasn’t great, but not bad, either.” Still, Macdonald, with her striking features like a Madonna in a Russian icon, sparks just as naturally and credibly with Khan as she does with Denman, making the setup for the ambiguous open ending entirely credible.

In line with the film’s generally understated vibe, most of the technical aspects are inconspicuous, apart from a fetching score by Dustin O’Halloran and the use of different versions of the apt canonical favorite "Ave Maria," sung memorably at one point on a subway by countertenor Matthew Shifrin.

Production companies: A Big Beach presentation of a Big Beach production, in association with Rosto, Inc, Olive Productions
Cast: Kelly Macdonald, David Denman, Irrfan Khan, Austin Abrams, Bubba Weiler, Helen Piper Coxe, Liv Hewson, Myrna Cabello, Audrie Neenan
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Screenwriters: Oren Moverman, Polly Mann, based on the film Rompecabezas by Natalia Smirnoff
Producers: Wren Arthur, Guy Stodel, Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf
Director of photography: Christopher Norr

Production designer: Roshelle Berliner
Costume designer: Mirren Gordon-Crozier
Editor: Catherine Haight
Music: Dustin O’Halloran
Music supervisor: Susan Jacobs
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Sales: ICM/Memento

103 minutes