Two times out of three, this is what performers do for a living: Come up with something juicy and alive, working with material composited from cardboard and good intentions. Often there are pieces missing from the roles they play, and not in a tantalizing way. The resourceful actor finds them, often between the lines.
Take Kelly Macdonald in “Puzzle,” the English-language remake of a 2009 Argentinian film. The unassumingly terrific Scottish actress, who made her screen debut in “Trainspotting” (1996), plays Agnes, a first-generation Hungarian-American homemaker devoted to her Bridgeport, Conn., parish but an isolated soul. She’s bound by tradition and habit to making meals, and life in general, comfortable for her auto mechanic husband (David Denman) and her sons (played by Austin Abrams and Bubba Weiler).
Agnes is a whiz at jigsaw puzzles, and “Puzzle” gives its central motif a considerable symbolic workout. Taking a rare trip into Manhattan one day, she visits a puzzle shop and answers someone’s ad for a puzzle partner. Irrfan Khan (“Life of Pi”) plays Robert, recently divorced, fabulously wealthy, indolently spending his days watching cable television and footage of natural disasters. With so much random, destructive chaos in the world, he says, puzzles offer the assurance that some things can be put together correctly. Robert and Agnes become jigsaw partners, prepping for the championship.
Each scene in “Puzzle,” written by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann, nudges the protagonist toward action. As Agnes and Robert grow closer, Agnes’ deceptions get more difficult to manage (she tells her family she’s tending to a sick aunt in New Rochelle, N.Y.). The generational conflicts at home have the ring of a Clifford Odets drama without the tangy language. “I wanna cook, Mom,” says the unhappy son, Ziggy, desperate to get out of working at his old man’s repair shop. Husband Louie at one drunken moment buttonholes Agnes with “Who’s fillin’ your head with all these new ideas?” Agnes herself lays it out like a tablecloth at one point, confronting Robert: “Tell me you’re not a bored rich guy; tell me I’m not a childish housewife.”
Mann is a first-time screenwriter; Moverman has done some wonderful, flavorful work in the past, with “The Messenger” and “Love & Mercy” and other projects. Here all is neat and tidy. Much of “Puzzle” feels schematic and, in the convenient solution to the family’s financial problems, a bit lazy. Yet Macdonald is so good, on her own or with a scene partner, director Marc Turtletaub’s movie refuses to fall apart. Macdonald and Khan do their best work in the early scenes, when these opposites have only begun to attract. The imperious Khan complements the piercingly true Macdonald, who has a dazzling way of getting to the heart of her character’s feelings non-verbally, a millisecond after a line of dialogue.
Does she outclass her own film? I prefer to look at it as a statistical matter. “Puzzle” is one of those two-out-of-three situations. For many, the acting will be enough.
Starring Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan and David Denman. Directed by Marc Turtletaub.
Rated R for language. Check listings for theaters. 1hour, 42 minutes.
Bottom line: Schematic film that feels a bit lazy, but acting is good
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