Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The greatest compliment I can pay to director Marc Turtletaub’s PUZZLE is that it inspired me to buy and assemble a puzzle. Its “play factor” is certainly undeniable – only I’m not nearly as skilled as the woman at the heart of this story.
Based on Natalia Smirnoff’s ROMPECABEZAS, the remake takes on the remarkable task of nailing all the contemplative complexities of a female mid-life crisis with insight and nuance. Unfortunately, it comes up short. While Turtletaub, along with screenwriters Oren Moverman and Polly Mann, has found renewed vigor updating the 2009 film for a mass audience (heaven forbid people read subtitles), he struggles to make the pieces fit together as a character study. Not only does the film fail at giving its characters any unexpected, poignant revelations, it comes up short in giving them logical motivations – particularly in its clumsy third act.
40-something, soft-spoken Agnes (played by the criminally underrated Kelly Macdonald) is the heartbeat of her home, yet she’s often overlooked and underappreciated by her own family. It’s clear there’s a power imbalance in the household before we’re out of the opening credits, showing Agnes hosting her own birthday party. Her car mechanic husband Louie (David Denman) expects her to assume the traditional, archaic roles of wife and mother, servicing his needs and those of sons Gabe (Austin Abrams) and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler). Her identity outside of the oppressive prison of domesticity is non-existent. But the decades of cooking, cleaning and nurturing are about to experience a metamorphosis. She receives a jigsaw puzzle – a map of the world (get it?) – as a present, and her world opens up. She soon realizes she has a gift for making those shellacked cardboard pieces fit together in record time. This breaks the mousey housewife out of her comfort zone, answering a message board ad from puzzle champion Robert (Irrfan Khan), a retired inventor seeking a partner for an upcoming international competition.
An odd juxtaposition arises during the course of PUZZLE. There’s something old-fashioned about the way the characters are drawn, yet it’s clearly meant to be empowering for modern feminists. For a film about a woman finding her strength and voice a little later in life, something that should inspire all audiences, the material comes across as reductive and contrived. The portrait is unfortunately painted with a heavy hand, with little to no creative strokes.
The escalating circumstances feel slight and trite thanks to the one-dimensional caricatures that populate the picture: Agnes is a sad-sack, a doormat, and her personality shifts become erratic and implausible as the run time clicks on. Her wishy-washy decisions (not born out of uncertainty, but rather screenwriters who can’t get a handle on their own protagonist) strain audience sympathy when we should be rooting for her. One of her sons brings home an insufferable cartoon stereotype of a Buddhist vegan (Liv Hewson). Louie is a sexist pig – until the filmmakers perplexingly soften him in a ham-handed fashion, then can’t decide whether or not to follow through. They tank Agnes and Robert’s pure, sweet friendship by manufacturing predictable, unnecessary drama to add more soap opera-esque conflict to Agnes’ marital woes. These should be lived-in, dynamic characters speaking to the shades of color within all of us in order to make these predicaments work.
What conducts most of the energy is the warmth, charm and radiance generated by the two leads. Despite the material not exactly being dialed in to Khan and Macdonald’s innate talents, their performances don’t disappoint. They are both hugely charismatic, magnetic and subtle performers. They even sell the screenplay’s false notes with honesty, humanity, heart, conviction, sincerity and vulnerability. Their spirit is infectious and their work is riveting.
Listen, PUZZLE might be the right fit for some audiences. But for those craving a more satisfactory high, the pieces are best assembled elsewhere.
PUZZLE opens in limited release on July 27.