In Puzzle, producer Marc Turtletaub (‘Loving’ and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’) turns his hand to directing with a story that follows Agnes, a housewife burdened with domestic drudgery in a house full of working-class men (her husband and two sons) as she struggles to find meaning in her life. As Turtletaub’s second feature film, Puzzle is directed with a reasonably confident hand. That said, while the visuals and story are solid and dependable, the film is a bit too predictable at times, and offers only two real surprises, which bookend the story, resulting in a compelling opening sequence and a quietly satisfying resolution.
When Agnes (Kelly MacDonald) discovers an aptitude for puzzles, she heads to nearby New York City, venturing way outside her comfort zone, in search of more puzzles to solve. She winds up answering an advertisement from a puzzle champion looking for a new “partner”. As their puzzle partnership grows, whether Robert, the champion, wants just a competition partner or something more, is called into question as Agnes begins to assemble the pieces of her new more confident and independent life. Her secret trips to New York to practice with Robert begin to unearth long-repressed anxieties in all the embers of Agnes’ family, and it becomes clear that the changes in Agnes are not just the result of her new love of puzzles. She (and they) have been holding things in her entire adult life.
Robert (Irrfan Khan), a one-time inventor who struck it rich, and has recently been abandoned by his wife, is now looking for someone new to play with. But, in Agnes he finds something more. She’s his equal (or better) at puzzles, and pushes him to open up as much as he coaxes her out of her shell. Robert is something exotic for Agnes. He’s curious about the world, and about how things work (including Agnes). And, Except for her son Ziggy (who is a bit lost himself), Robert is also the first man to treat Agnes as an individual.
Playing the part of Louie, Agnes’ oppressive ( “I just want the best for you”) husband, David Denman is quite good, and brings real depth to a character that could easily just wallow on the couch and demand food. Instead, I found myself puzzling over the psyche of a man who generally believes he’s doing “good”, while holding back the people he loves. In many ways, he’s the most compelling character in the film.
In choosing between her old life, Robert, and herself, Agnes is forced to solve the ultimate puzzle. The result is a sweetly predictable philosophical struggle wrapped in a suburban American coming-of-middle-age story.
Based on Argentinian director Natalia Smirnoff’s 2010 Berlin Golden Bear-nominated film Rompecabezas (Spanish for puzzle), with a script written by Olly Mann and Oren Overman, director Turtletaub’s Puzzle is a dependable drama with characters we care about, and struggles we recognize. From the trailer it looks like it was taken almost scene-for-scene from Smirnoff’s film. But, as a formula, it works, and is only mildly obvious, and not distracting or overly cliché.
While a bit predictable and trite in places, Puzzle is a story that won’t challenge you, but will still have you rooting for underdogs in various forms. It’s an old story that’s well told with credible characters.