Puzzle

Puzzle, Kelly McDonald, Irrfan KhanWhile you can’t fault the acting in this new Marc Turtletaub rom-com, written by Oren Moverman, it contains few surprises (trailer). All the typical Hollywood assumptions about relations between men and women are on display, along with filmmakers’ strange notions about how ordinary people in relationships or financial turmoil actually behave.

Agnes (played by Kelly Macdonald), has been married a couple of decades to Louie (David Denman), who owns an auto repair shop, and they have two sons, the unhappy Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and his younger brother Gabe (Austin Abrams), who’s planning to go to college and is in love. Agnes isn’t happy and she isn’t unhappy; she’s in a disappointed stasis.

They live in one of the Connecticut suburbs of New York—Bridgeport, I think. They don’t travel, not even into the city. (It’s a cinch she doesn’t have a passport, the significance of which I won’t explain.) If they have a vacation, they go to their cottage on the lake. The adults’ attitudes about sex-roles predate the Eisenhower Administration—as does Agnes’s wardrobe—though they are only in their forties now. In short, the premise seems dated. Not that there aren’t still people with old-fashioned ideas and lives, but we’ve seen that movie.

Agnes is aware that, while she engages in an endless round of housekeeping, meal preparation, and church lady functions, life is passing her by. A poignant moment occurs early when she decorates the house for a birthday party, serves the food and cleans up, and brings out the huge chocolate-frosted cake she’s made so people can sing happy birthday—to her. The only pastime she truly enjoys is working jigsaw puzzles, and she’s a whiz at it.

One day she sees an ad from a person seeking a puzzle partner. She contacts him and, in a move that surprises even herself, takes the commuter train into New York to meet him. Robert (Irrfan Khan) tries her out and is amazed, and they practice two days a week, aiming for the forthcoming national championships.

Louie would object to her spending a day in the city (“Where’s my dinner?”) so she lies about it. That seems out of character, as do a number of her subsequent actions. Meanwhile, her puzzle partner Robert is the only man who takes an interest in her interior life or even supposes she has one. She is like someone dying of thirst offered a glass of water. You’ve guessed the rest.

Denman’s portrayal of Louie, who may have been conceived as a cardboard anti-feminist, is so sympathetic that he actually doesn’t come off as a bad guy.

I was sorry I didn’t like this movie as much as the critics do because I love jigsaw puzzles myself, and what the movie says about the mental process of working on them seemed to me exactly right. They make order out of chaos, when what Agnes is doing is, at least for a time, the exact opposite.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences: 78%.

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