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Reclaiming a life, one piece at a time

A woman who has a talent for assembling jigsaw puzzles sneaks away from her suburban town and goes to New York City, where she partners with a man for a puzzle tournament in Atlantic City.
August 29, 2018 05:58 pm

Agnes, the heroine of “Puzzle,” counts down the seconds to the morning wake-up alarm, then anticipates her husband’s drowsy grumble of “five more minutes.”

How bad are things for poor Agnes? She decorates the house and bakes a cake for a birthday party, but it turns out she is the guest of honor. Next comes a reprise of the first scene: countdown, alarm, husband’s grumble. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) lives with her boorish, sexist husband Louie (David Denman) and two young adult sons in a suburban home so underlighted you wonder if breadwinner Louie earns enough to pay the household electric bill.

As played by Macdonald, Agnes has buried her life so deeply that she has almost ceased to exist. She spends her days taking care of the men in her life. She shops and cooks and cleans up after them. She has no social life and no friends.

The director, Marc Turtletaub, shows Agnes in frequent tight close-ups, quizzical or wondering, as if forming a thought would hurt her head. Her daily life is immutable. Turtletaub gives us “Groundhog Day” as a serious “woman’s picture,” minus the inventiveness and multiple dimensions.

Then a strange thing happens. She opens a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle she received as a gift at the birthday party, dumps out the pieces on the kitchen table and puts it together in minutes. A puzzle prodigy is born.

Some implausible plot twists later, Agnes is taking the train two days a week to New York City — a place she’s rarely visited — to meet Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy and enigmatic inventor who recognizes her skill and wants her to be his “puzzle partner” in the city’s big jigsaw competition. If they win, they go to Belgium for the world competition, or something like that.

A romantic attraction develops between Agnes and Robert, but neither can confront it. Agnes doesn’t tell her family the real reason for her trips. She pretends she is visiting an elderly aunt with a broken foot.

“Puzzle” runs out of plot well before its abrupt and confusing ending. It’s muted cinematography and dreary suburban setting give it the mood of a 1950s Douglas Sirk melodrama without Sirk’s signature complexity of story and character.

The movie is ground down by stereotyping. One of Agnes’ sons is a bad-boy type who wants skip college to go to Tibet with his girlfriend. The other is a homebody like his mom who wants to be a chef, which Louie finds insulting and effeminate.

It also becomes apparent that the puzzles are a metaphor anyway — the picture is all metaphor — and not the true subject of the movie.

“How long have you been puzzling?” Robert asks Agnes, and the dual nature of the question is apparent. In presenting a character study of a woman staging a quiet rebellion against the controlling forces in her life and emerging from the darkness of suburbia into the light of her own personality, the filmmakers didn’t notice they turned her into a lummox.