Puzzle is one of those rare movies whose acting is so good it elevates a mediocre story. It’s not even that Puzzle‘s script is bad, exactly, it’s just that it feels like it was written as a period piece set in the 70s or 80s or 90s, but they didn’t have the money to shoot it that way so they added a few lines about iPhones and pretended it was the late 2010s. Character traits that would’ve seemed mildly anachronistic in 1991 take on a clinical edge in 2017. And yet… Kelly MacDonald and Irrfhan Khan are mesmerizing together. They’ll make you forgive a lot.
MacDonald, the actress who initially soared to fame playing Renton’s jailbait dream girl in Trainspotting, stars in Puzzle as Agnes, a Connecticut housewife so unhip she wilts at the thought of owning an iPhone. It’s like “having a little robot alien in your pocket,” she says, unconvincingly.
When her son, Gabe, played by Austin Abrams in an effectively punchable smug role reminiscent of a young Miles Teller, brings his girlfriend over for dinner, Agnes has to cop to not knowing what vegans or Buddhism is. “I’ve heard people talking about it, like in magazines and stuff, but no one ever says what it is,” she says.
Sure, she’s supposed to be sheltered, a Catholic good girl who married her first boyfriend, but the idea that she lives a short train ride from New York City yet has never used Google or a cell phone strains credulity for any character not previously frozen in a block of ice or mentally challenged. Likewise she plays a stay-at-home mom to two boys, packing lunch and pursing her lips in shy embarrassment whenever someone uses harsh language like “shucks” or “gosh,” and lives in a big ol’ house with her husband who is… a mechanic? (A one-income household who own both a home and a cottage on a mechanic’s salary? Damn, I should’ve taken auto shop.)
Puzzle, directed by prolific producer Marc Turteltaub, was adapted from a 2009 Argentinian film written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff. Oren Moverman and Polly Mann’s adapted script feels like it wasn’t quite adapted enough, and everything feels a little foreign, a little off-kilter.
Agnes eventually discovers a talent for, that’s right, jigsaw puzzles, and soon finds herself puzzle partners with Robert, played by Irrfhan Khan, an idly rich inventor who’s gradually transforming Agnes’ black and white world to color Pleasantville style, one puzzle piece at a time.
The story is fairly contrived, but the chemistry is real. The depth and complexity of emotion Kelly MacDonald (in a long tradition of actresses far too attractive for the roles they’re supposed to be playing) can convey with her quiver of similar yet individually distinct eyebrow furrows is truly inspiring. A less agile foil would overwhelm her, but Irrfhan Khan is as at least as adroit with his heavy eyelids as MacDonald is with her furrows, probably the best eyelid actor outside of Mandy Patinkin. Khan is like a human crocodile, his lidded eyes telegraphing drowsiness but not enough to disguise their predator’s glint. His laconic worldliness is the perfect match with MacDonald’s manic innocence and watching them together, even when they’re putting together a goddamned puzzle, is never boring.