Puzzle: Missing Pieces = Mediocre Film

Puzzle (2018)
Directed by Marc Turtletaub
Sony Picture Classics, 103 minutes, R (language)

In the age of blow-‘em-up/shoot-‘em-up movies, I wanted to be charmed by a low-key tale of a suburban housewife who finds her Mojo through putting together crossword puzzles. Alas, Puzzle is all heart, but no body. Watching it is, if I may, about as interesting as watching someone assemble a jigsaw.

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is a good smalltown Catholic girl who has always done what she’s supposed to do, which is to attend church and take care of her home, her husband Louie (David Denman), and her two nearly grown sons: Gabe and Ziggy. Her life is one filled with such predictability that when the morning alarm goes off she knows exactly what each household member will say and how her day will unfold.

Agnes gets a small jolt on her birthday when she receives a cake she baked herself, an iPhone, and a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It’s the last that alters her, not the food or the (unwanted) phone. Agnes zips through the puzzle and is so hooked that she takes the train into New York City to buy more. There she sees a flyer from a person seeking a partner for an upcoming puzzle competition. Who knew there was such a thing as competitive puzzling, let alone a doubles category? Agnes is shy to the point of being socially inept, but she screws up her courage and meets Robert (Irrfan Khan), a rich, recently divorced inventor who lives in a fabulous New York City townhouse. The two connect on several levels.

Agnes lies to Louie so she can commute two days a week into New York instead of having dinner on the table when he comes home from working in his debt-saddled garage. Working-class dynamics are the best thing about Puzzled. Louie’s not a bad egg, just a boring one. He and his family live within commuter rail distance of Manhattan, but they are a million miles away culturally, socially, and economically. None has been to college and it doesn't look like there will be enough money for Gabe to attend—not that he cares all that much. Ziggy works with his dad in the garage and hates it; he thinks he’d rather be a chef. None of this makes sense to Louie, whose ambitions stop at paying bills and getting some down time to go fishing. He certainly doesn’t understand why Agnes is so obsessed with puzzles, so Agnes tells him she is taking care of an aunt when she’s actually seeing Robert for puzzles and more.

Right away we have a problem. Puzzle isn’t a thousand-piece drama; more like just four. Will Agnes and Robert win the competition? Will Gabe stop being a slacker? Can Ziggy escape the garage and follow his bliss? Most of all, now that Agnes has tasted forbidden fruit, can her marriage survive? It would take powerful performances to transform such thin material. Alas, this is not in the offing.

Kelly Macdonald simply isn’t dynamic enough to carry the picture. She is called upon to be naïve, dutiful, and dull. If anything, she is too good at those tasks. Her affect is so colorless and flat that there’s nothing about her that would attract a guy like Robert. Nor is there much there to suggest that any sort of change is possible. We see small amounts of pique here and there, but Macdonald's overall performance seems more suitable for a film about accountancy. Khan isn’t much more interesting in a role that calls upon him to be, at turns, exotic, mysterious, mentoring, and (mildly) libidinous. He seems much better at moping, actually. The less said about Martin Abrams (Gabe) and Bubba Weiler (Ziggy), the better. Each is little more than (ahem!) a cutout whose back-stories feel like script padding.

Denman is the strongest actor in the cast. He does a deft job portraying Louie, a blue-collar worker who strips life to its basics. Louie is the kind of individual I knew well when growing up. He works hard and tries to do the right thing, but he understands duty and routine far better than desire or nuance. Denman does this so well, that we both like him and want to slap him to make him to wake up.

There is nothing remarkable about the cinematography or direction, so this affords a perfect opportunity to vent about a few other things. First, this film is rated R for language. Isn’t it time for the MPAA to join the 21st century? Partial nudity can still obtain a PG-13 rating but, though the word “fuck” is ubiquitous these days, a single F-bomb can bring an R rating. It’s as if it’s okay for bare breasts or a naked behind to suggest sex, but heaven forbid anyone use a word that connotes it.

Rant number two is that Puzzle is actually an English-language remake of the 2010 Argentinean film Rompecabezas. It’s not exactly a shot-by-shot remake, but it’s worth asking why the American film industry wastes so much time and money badly remaking foreign films instead of coming up with some interesting new ideas. Puzzle is indeed puzzling, but not in a good way. Like its poster, there's a piece–or two or three–missing.

Rob Weir

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