Film Review: Puzzle

A neglected homemaker frees herself from a mundane existence through the peace she finds in jigsaw puzzles. Marc Turtletaub’s soulful charmer honors the liberating power of life’s solitary pleasures.
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Radiating tranquility via simple means, producer-turned-director Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle celebrates solitary bliss with pieces of wisdom that neatly fit together. Serene and intimate in equal measure, in the vein of Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, Puzzle proudly wears its unfussy metaphors on its sleeve, while sidestepping trite clichés of stories about self-discovery. Its premise might sound dull, but this charming crowd-pleaser is thankfully anything but—so much that Puzzle might even restore your faith in remakes.

Indeed, Turtletaub’s film is an English-language version of Argentinean filmmaker Natalia Smirnoff’s heartwarming 2010 title. (She is an executive producer here.) While Oren Moverman and Polly Mann’s screenplay more or less mirrors the beats of its predecessor, the pleasures of the new film don’t feel secondhand, thanks in large part to a pair of soulful performances from Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan Khan—an expressive duo responsible for much of the film’s soothing aura.

Macdonald plays Agnes, a traditional, church-going homemaker in a barely functional, passionless marriage with emotionally manipulative Louie (David Denman). An underappreciated suburban mother of two grownup sons—Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams)—who still rely on her as much as her husband does, Agnes gradually recovers her inner broken pieces despite the odds and mends them with patience.

The catalyst for Agnes’ sudden enlightenment is a thousand-piece puzzle she receives for her birthday. (Agnes is so taken for granted that during her birthday party, she brings out her own cake, which she undoubtedly baked herself.) Through this random gift, she discovers her unparalleled talent for jigsaws: What would require others days to finish only takes her a few hours of strict focus. Inspired by her natural flair and instantly addicted to the calm she finds in connecting the right pieces together, Agnes heads straight to New York City to visit the quaint shop where her present came from. There, she discovers a personal ad from an individual seeking a puzzle partner.

Enter Khan’s uninspired inventor Robert, an avid, well-off puzzler living in a stunning but sparse New York City townhouse and preparing for a series of upcoming puzzle championships. (Yes, that apparently is a thing.) Immediately impressed with Agnes’ speed and unique strategy, the lonely Robert, who comes with his own set of problems around a broken marriage, welcomes her into the bizarre world of competitive puzzling. The inevitable happens in due course—feelings grow between them during their secret practice sessions in Robert’s apartment.

Making puzzle assembly seem exciting on camera is a near-impossible task, yet Turtletaub somehow manages to visualize the mysterious draw of it. (Don’t be surprised if you gravitate towards jigsaw sets after seeing this film—I speak from experience.) When Agnes focuses on the task in front of her, she builds an invisible barrier behind which she finds confidence and succeeds or fails alone, without the worry of cooking elaborate family dinners for her less-than-considerate husband. Through her newfound assurance, she guides the unconventional career decision of one of her sons at a similar crossroads and learns to be more vocal about her thoughts and wishes. And when she shares her safe space with the nurturing Robert, we can’t help but root for their budding romance. Cinematographer Chris Norr films the duo’s togetherness around a table with a feather-light touch accentuated by beams of orange daylight. Their attraction is palpable when their eyes lock or hands accidentally touch against a ticking clock.

But Puzzle is Agnes’ movie in the end. The smart script shows no interest in tying her up in yet another stuffy relationship. Instead, it grants her the room to find her own voice and asks us to wish her well on her journey. Anchored by a tender score by Dustin O’Halloran, Puzzle is not an eventful film, nor does it have a villain—even Louie, despite his casual arrogance and textbook male cluelessness, proves to be a decent man at heart. It is, instead, one that chooses to see the sweet appeal of solitude that makes us whole. When Agnes decides on life’s next chapter, she puts herself first. Her loneliness looks like freedom at long last, full of liberating possibilities.