Puzzle at EIFF: kitsch whimsy
Puzzle is just one of those films. You know, the kind of movie where you’ve barely walked out of the screening and already you’ve forgotten almost everything you’ve just seen. Director Marc Turtletaub has created a work that, at times, has a gentle, crowd-pleasing sensibility, but comes off mostly as a grating piece of whimsy like any other.
Wasting the talents of Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan Khan, the pedestrian storyline focuses on Agnes, a bored suburban housewife who has been coaxed into a life of domestic boredom with her husband Louie (David Denman). An otherwise disappointing birthday party leads to a new life when Agnes is gifted a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle and discovers she has a natural affinity and interest to complete it. On the quest to find another, Agnes finds herself drawn to Robert (Khan), a competitive puzzler working towards a national competition: together, they form a team, and train for the big day.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Puzzle, and the jigsaws within it, are a metaphor for Agnes’s quest to piece together some sort of identity. This kitschy conceit creates problems. Firstly, the pseudo-philosophical dialogue comes off as trite – the stoned mumblings of a high-school philosophy student to a summer fling. Lengthy conversations about how life is a chaotic mess, and puzzles are a way to order the chaos would be better off unsaid. Turtletaub displays an almost obsessive distrust in his audience to discern layers and meaning without establishing them in exposition. The film seems to want us to completely sympathise with Agnes, despite her being a pretty dislikeable character. Time and time again, her actions have vast negative consequences for others (especially Louie and Robert), and, although none of these people are by any means perfect, it feels as if Agnes is hurting them, nay, punishing them, for wrongs they haven’t committed. Furthermore, some of the key plot beats (such as Agnes keeping her new preoccupation a secret) seem totally unnecessary – why wouldn’t she tell her family? It’s never made clear, and when revealed they seem supportive.
Even aside from these problems, it remains the case that Puzzle is unbelievably dull. Together with the uninspired, uninteresting story, and the patronising philosophical interludes, it looks and sounds like any other low-budget Sundance indie. There’s no style, no distinguishing mark of an auteur at work, nothing interesting whatsoever in the cinematography. The soundtrack is chock-a-block with optimistic guitar music and warm piano – almost indistinguishable from any number of small-scale human dramas produced over the last decade. And Puzzle is a remake! Every single little thing about the production oozes sameness: forgettable, unoriginal, and ultimately rather boring.
The one saving grace, on Turtletaub’s part, is casting Kelly Macdonald – widely recognised as an excellent actress, yet one who scarcely picks up a meaty role. Macdonald brings a compelling quiet energy to Agnes, driving her believably through most of the narrative. Unfortunately, her character is too thin to remain convincing in some of the film’s later scenes. In particular, the romantic tension between Agnes and Robert feels unbelievable and surprising – the former is scripted to seem totally sexless and unromantically involved.
Puzzle is a warm-hearted crowd-pleaser about discovering yourself and finding your feet. It features a believable, powerful performance from Kelly Macdonald, and is watchable enough, but that’s about it. A few years down the line, somebody might ask me whether I ever saw Puzzle. My response by then may be that I can’t actually remember.