Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle, a remake of writer-director Natalia Smirnoff’s 2009 film of the same name, will have your eyes darting around the screen, looking for patterns. An early scene sees the camera linger on a jigsaw puzzle—first in pieces, then assembled—and with the image in your mind, you start to notice things. Alongside Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), a housewife mired in disquiet, you’ll spot the colored shards that make up a church cross, the ornate carvings in a doorframe, and the purling argyle on a set of bedsheets. At one point, she remarks at how strange it is that someone should say the name “Maria,” given that a passenger on her train was singing the “Ave Maria.”
Puzzle, however, isn’t a film about paranoia or seeing things that aren’t there. It’s about a marriage on the slide, and about looking for patterns of meaning in life. It’s also about jigsaw puzzles. Agnes has settled into her Connecticut life unsated by her home or her church. She’s married to Louie (David Denman), who runs a mechanic workshop and struggles to captain the family ship. One of their sons, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler), yearns to quit working at the family garage and pursue his dormant passion for cooking, while the other, Gabe (Austin Abrams), is forgoing college in order to travel with his girlfriend.
All those under Agnes’s roof depend on her, and the film opens with her dutifully putting together her own birthday party. She also runs the books for Louie’s business, cooks every dinner, cleans the house, and is softly stifled in quietude. But after receiving a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle at the party, and nimbly completing it—twice—in a few short hours, she discovers a yearning in herself, and rushes out to the garage to find another. When she does, she kneels on the floor to piece it together—and as a ray of light beams in on her through the dust, she looks like a seminarian, illumined with inspiration.
Would that the film was as well. The opening is thick with a vaguely pleasant torpor, as we watch Agnes in her daily routine: talking with the members of her church, buying groceries, slowly feeling around the edges of an awakening. A window opens in the form of Robert (Irrfan Khan), who’s looking for a puzzle partner for a regional competition. He wafts into Agnes’s life with tousled hair and crinkled cotton shirts, swathed in taupe cardigans and loafers. He has the air of airiness about him. Having made a scientific breakthrough when he was younger, he lives lavishly off of a well-placed patent. It isn’t doing him any favors, though, as he’s become a middle-aged manqué, silently wilting for want of challenge and risk. Both are things Agnes has in abundance, but, as if she didn’t have her plate full, she embarks on an affair with Robert, which feels more compelled by the script, by Oren Moverman, than swelling emotion.
All these troubles spill forth like a shale of jigsaw pieces, but nothing takes shape. There are patterns but no payoff. It’s as if Puzzle has been winnowed of dramatic obligation, delivering predictably on the page but without feeling on the screen. It’s buoyed by the presence of Macdonald, who’s a master of understated vulnerability, but she can’t steer it out of the doldrums. What you expect to happen will happen, and you won’t feel much when it does.