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.
David Denman (formerly Roy from The Office) is similarly effective as Agnes’s well-meaning sexist lump of a husband, even if the words that come out of his mouth don’t sound the least bit believable in 2018. “Only children play with puzzles, Agnes,” goes one line, and later he opines that he doesn’t think being a chef is “a manly profession.” Oh, brother. The guy’s supposed to live in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he’d probably have celebrity chef neighbors. (Also, at a certain point you wonder if Denman’s going to have to have a hard think about why casting directors think he makes such a good cuckold.)
Despite the sometimes dowdy dialogue and anachronistic skeleton, most of Puzzle‘s dramatic beats work, with an ending that’s just a few degrees off predictable in a way that feels right (though yes, there is a cathartic moment next to a body of water in there). A studiously non-shouty movie about jigsaw puzzles makes solid counter-programming to the glut of bloated blockbusters out there, and if nothing else, you have to respect anyone who can make a jigsaw scene seem erotic. That’s solid hustle. And Kelly MacDonald and Irrfhan Khan are true treasures.