I’ve always admired Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, so although the premise of Puzzle sounds like a bore – a timid suburban housewife finds her calling putting jigsaw puzzles together – I couldn’t resist a film that offered her a rare starring role.
Directed by Marc Turtletaub – 2018
Reviewed by Mark Tapio Kines
Of course, Puzzle is about more than jigsaw puzzles. Based on the 2009 Argentinean film Rompecabezas (the Spanish word for jigsaw puzzle, translated literally and adorably as “head breaker”), the story is really about a woman’s self-awakening. For soon after she realizes her genius for solving jigsaw puzzles, this woman, Agnes, secretly partners up with a competitive puzzler (Indian superstar Irrfan Khan) whose wife recently left him… and you can guess where this is going.
Puzzle isn’t a bad film, but, if you’ll forgive the expression, the pieces don’t all fit together. This is only the second feature directed by veteran producer Turtletaub, and it feels like the kind of film that the Sundance Festival used to play on opening night: technically indie but essentially middle-of-the-road.
The script, on the other hand, is cowritten by Oren Moverman, who can’t help but write eccentric, often impenetrable characters (Rampart, Love & Mercy, I’m Not There). How much of this movie is his, and how much is lifted directly from Natalia Smirnoff’s Rompecabezas script, or contributed by cowriter Polly Mann (her first and only screenwriting credit), I don’t know. But the film is at its best when it allows its characters’ quirky obsessions and observations to come to the fore. And Agnes definitely fits into Moverman’s company of inscrutable oddballs.
That said, the character didn’t work for me, and thus the film didn’t work for me. Unfortunately I have to place blame on Macdonald, or at least on her relationship with her director. In short, she is miscast. Although she was 41 at the time of filming, she is too elegant and youthful to convince as a middle-class, middle-aged nobody (especially when paired with the schlubby David Denman as your standard oafish husband) who is raising two sons into adulthood. (Donna Lynne Champlin portrayed virtually the same character, to much greater effect, in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.) She also seems uncomfortable with her American dialect and pitches her voice in a high, fake squeak. It’s an affectation, Mousy Housewife 101. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but Macdonald is normally such a capable actress that her weak performance here really stands out. She also has zero chemistry with Khan, who is otherwise charming.
Points added for Chris Norr’s gorgeous cinematography and for Roshelle Berliner’s equally lovely production design. (Khan’s character’s house is quite distinctive.) If you’re looking for a movie you can watch with your mom, you could do worse than this. And some people surely will have no problem with Macdonald’s performance. I just wish I was one of them.
> Playing at Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.
Mark Tapio Kines is a film director, writer, producer and owner of Cassava Films. You can reach Mark here.