×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Puzzle’

This remake of a well-liked Argentine film allows Kelly Macdonald to shine amid the yawn-inducing world of competitive jigsaw puzzling.

Director:
Marc Turtletaub
With:
Kelly Macdonald, David Denman, Daniel Sherman, Austin Abrams, Bubba Weiler.

1 hour 43 minutes

Puzzle” is the missing piece in American blockbuster filmmaking. It’s about what Peter Parker’s Aunt May does with her days while Spider-Man is off saving the neighborhood, or how Clark Kent’s adoptive mother Martha feels about her life back in Smallville. So often, great actresses are relegated to playing the wives and girlfriends of heroic male protagonists, appearing only to bite their nails or fret by the phone amidst all the excitement. “Puzzle” focuses on the part of the story those films ignore, privileging the interior life of just such a woman via the unexpected mid-life discovery that she’s a jigsaw puzzle prodigy, and the independent streak that realization inspires.

It’s a small, subtle movie — like a Vermeer, painted on the head of a pin — conceived by a woman (Argentine director Natalia Smirnoff’s quiet, detail-oriented debut was a break-out at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival) and then handed over to a male director (“Little Miss Sunshine” producer Marc Turtletaub) for its sensitive, yet strangely airless English-language remake. That’s not to suggest a man can’t capture or appreciate the nuances of such a story (it’s a man who’s reviewing it, after all). From “Amelie” to “Aquarius,” there are countless examples of man-made movies that explore the unspoken hopes and dreams of female protagonists, but there’s no question that the original film’s appeal owes to the perspective of the woman who created it. Where “Rompecabezas” (“The Puzzle”) felt personal, its retelling seems patronizing — or at the very least pathetic, presented with the kind of solemnity you’d expect while reading a suicide note.

And yet, we should be grateful that it exists, if only because it affords a long-overdue leading role to Kelly Macdonald, the Scottish character actress who has so often played the sort of wife (“No Country for Old Men”) and servant roles (“Gosford Park”) that practically disappear into the wallpaper. Here, the wallpaper is too flashy for that to happen: When we meet Agnes (Macdonald), dutiful housewife and mother of two, she’s like a dun-colored moth no one notices as she prepares for a birthday party. It’s not until late in the festivities that we realize, with some surprise, that she cleaned the house, baked the cake, and did all the chores for her own celebration.

Among the presents, Agnes finds a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Where it might take the average person several days to assemble such a complicated puzzle, Agnes begins in the afternoon and finishes it before her husband (David Denman) comes home. Twice. It’s kinda perfect that the image on the puzzle is a world map, since Agnes has hardly ever left her tiny New Jersey microcosm. But now, she feels compelled, buying a train ticket to the Big Apple in order to buy a couple more puzzles. (Why she can’t get them in the suburbs is anybody’s guess — although so much of Agnes’ behavior feels like a tentative outreach toward the kind of experience and acknowledgement she’s always denied herself.)

Spotting an advertisement for a puzzle champion “desperately seeking” a partner, Agnes takes his number, but waits several hours before texting him: “I think I might be good at this.” That hesitation, coupled with a lack of confidence in herself, are simultaneously Agnes’ most endearing and depressing qualities. It can be frustrating to watch someone so hesitant blooming as if in slow-motion, and yet, small clues suggest that her puzzle skill may be the tip of some greater genius (at the very least, it’s an indication that her brain is capable of so much more than the menial existence it was previously permitted).

Agnes’ dilemma is familiar enough, as a fundamentally selfless woman tentatively gives herself permission to pursue her own pleasure (as one IMDb commenter pointed out, the film “Queen to Plan” tells practically the same story, with chess in place of puzzles). In a mark of uncommon complexity for such stories, Agnes’ husband is depicted as a decent man, rather than an abusive cheat. “Why didn’t you ever divorce him?” her son (Austin Abrams) has the nerve to ask at one point. It’s a surprising question, since he’s doting, faithful, never violent, but hopelessly provincial. He adores his wife, but doesn’t do that thing that comes naturally to anyone in love: putting himself in her shoes, wondering what she’s doing with her time.

And what’s she’s doing is discovering herself, slowly, through the admiring gaze of her new puzzle partner (“The Lunchbox” star Irrfan Khan), whose own wife has just ditched him. The romance that arises there doesn’t quite work, if only because Macdonald’s character is so introverted and old-fashioned. Sneaking out practically on tiptoe, her trips to New York are not quite those of an Amish person’s Rumspringa, but the equivalent of a woman raised in a house with no mirrors who finally glimpses a full-length reflection of herself (alternately, you could force a jigsaw-puzzle metaphor, but the movie isn’t that neatly contrived). Frankly, it’s hard to imagine anything more yawn-worthy than watching two people assemble puzzles — and neither actor is particularly convincing as being good at it. But that’s hardly the point.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Puzzle'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 23, 2018. Running time: 103 MIN.

Production: A Big Beach presentation of a Big Beach production, in association with Rosto, Inc.., Olive Prods. (International sales: Memento, Paris.) Producers: Wren Arthur, Guy Stodel, Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf.

Crew: Director: Marc Turtletaub. Screenplay: Oren Moverman, Polly Mann, based on the film “Rompecabezas” by Natalia Smirnoff. Camera (color, widescreen): Chris Norr. Editor: Catherine Haight. Music: Dustin O’Halloran.

With: Kelly Macdonald, David Denman, Daniel Sherman, Austin Abrams, Bubba Weiler.

More Film

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez's 'Criminal' Striptease: How 'Hustlers' Landed the Fiona Apple Hit

    Contrary to what you might be expecting, the number of songs by Jennifer Lopez, Lizzo and Cardi B in “Hustlers,” their newly released acting vehicle, adds up to … zero. Meanwhile, the standout music sync in a movie that’s full of them belongs to no less likely a choice than Fiona Apple. The scene in [...]

  • Game of Thrones Season 8

    'Game of Thrones,' 'Avengers' Win Big at 45th Annual Saturn Awards

    As Jamie Lee Curtis picked up her first trophy ever at the 45th Annual Saturn Awards Friday night, she had a good luck charm on her arm: former manager Chuck Binder, whom she said was the reason she became an actor. “I was in college and had no thought of being an actor,” Curtis told [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star

    Box Office: 'Hustlers' Dances Toward $32 Million Opening Weekend

    “Hustlers” is eyeing the biggest opening weekend ever for STXFilms, following a Friday domestic ticket haul of $13.1 million from 3,250 theaters. If estimates hold, the stripper saga could take home around $32 million come Sunday, marking the best live-action opening of Jennifer Lopez’s career. “Hustlers” follows a group of former strip club dancers, led [...]

  • Hustlers intimacy coordinator

    Meet the Stripper Consultant Who Gave 'Hustlers' Authenticity, Dignity and Sexual Freedom

    At last week’s Toronto Film Festival premiere of “Hustlers,” an audience of Hollywood heavyweights and Canadian locals applauded as a statuesque woman strutted on stage, rocking six-inch platform heels and a pastel tie-dye bodysuit. This adoration was not for stars Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu or Keke Palmer, nor was it for the film’s acclaimed writer-director [...]

  • Kristen Stewart

    French Director Olivier Assayas Pays Tribute to Kristen Stewart at Deauville

    French director Olivier Assayas paid tribute to Kristen Stewart, whom he directed in “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper,” at the Deauville American Film Festival on Friday evening. Stewart received a honorary award in Deauville before the French premiere of Benedict Andrews’s “Seberg” in which the actress stars as Jean Seberg, a French New [...]

  • Liam Gallagher: As It Was

    Film Review: 'Liam Gallagher: As It Was'

    Liam Gallagher is nearly as fascinating a rock ‘n’ roll figure as he thinks he is … which is saying a lot. After the breakup of Oasis, one of the most self-avowedly arrogant stars in pop culture found himself severely humbled, fighting to become relevant again without the help of Noel, his ex-bandmate and, for [...]

  • The Vast of Night

    Toronto Film Review: 'The Vast of Night'

    It’s the first high school basketball game of the season and all of Cayuga, N.M., population 492, is cheering on the Statesmen at the gym. Except for the town’s two brightest kids, Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), who are strolling through the empty darkness to their respective jobs as a radio DJ and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content