I bring up the clichéd formula of the sports movie because this film would’ve benefited from that genre’s propulsive energy. Instead, Puzzle eventually succumbs to the dreary grasp of an entirely different archetype, the muted indie drama, spending less time delving into the niche world of competitive puzzling and more on the details of Agnes’s crummy marriage to Louie (David Denman). The 2010 movie that Turtletaub (and the screenwriters Oren Moverman and Polly Mann) are adapting hewed to a similar story, focusing more on its lead character exerting her independence, but that film’s director (Natalia Smirnoff) made the transformation vivacious and energizing.
Turtletaub is strangely averse to anything colorful or active entering his frame. Perhaps that’s fitting for a story about puzzling (a quiet, static, but engrossing activity), but it makes for a dull movie. Agnes’s gift for putting jigsaws together so quickly is never explained or developed—it’s a preternatural ability, one honed (the viewer imagines) by years of being ignored at home by her husband. Agnes’s relationship with Louie is cartoonishly dysfunctional; he treats her like wallpaper and is only interested in when dinner will be on the table. When Agnes announces that she’s going to a puzzle competition—just about the least dramatic field trip one can imagine—Louie acts like she’s decided to join an all-nude touring revue, or the Insane Clown Posse.
From minute one, Turtletaub is trying to illustrate just how stale Agnes’s suburban existence is. But he mashes the point home so clumsily that there’s no tension to her flowering relationship with Khan’s Robert. There’s a quirky romantic tension between Agnes and Robert from the start, but the idea of Agnes possibly cheating on her husband has zero stakes, given that Louie is such a cruel nonentity.
I went into Puzzle at least hoping to learn more about the intricacies of competitive puzzling, which revolves around timed competitions and people working in pairs. But Turtletaub doesn’t offer many details about that curious world, or about how Agnes further refines her skills, outside of simply doing more and more puzzles. The viewer mostly sees her alongside Robert in his sparsely decorated Manhattan home, assembling puzzles with Zen-like contentment. It’s satisfying to watch her succeed, but frustrating to not get any real idea of how she’s accomplishing it.
The chief reason to see Puzzle is Macdonald, the kind of actress who has always thrived no matter how thin her material. She’s as magnetic when playing boisterous Brits (such as in Some Voices or Trainspotting) as she is in more timid roles like this one, but the last time she was handed a leading film role, outside of her voice work in Pixar’s Brave, was in 2011. She’s given little to work with here and still spins it into something deeply felt. Agnes is written as a caricature of a bored housewife and Macdonald gives her genuine spirit and emotion, mixing in bitterness even as she begins to leave her old life behind. Her work, and Khan’s offbeat charm alongside her, keeps Puzzle from feeling like an outright failure. But there’s a much more fun and dramatic narrative here, and Turtletaub just can’t put the pieces together.