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Puzzle review – jigsaw drama is exceptionally boring

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Verdict: Bring along low expectations, and possibly a pillow. Or just don’t go to see this one.

Marc Turtletaub, the producer behind indie hits Little Miss Sunshine and Safety Not Guaranteed, made his directorial debut with Gods Behaving Badly. The film premiered at the Rome Film Festival in 2013, was panned by the few critics who saw it, and never got a release. Puzzle, Turtletaub’s second attempt as director, was never going to meet the same fate – this kind of harmless comfort viewing will always ensnare an audience. But while it’s never unwatchable, Puzzle is oppressively unambitious and exceptionally boring.

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), a timid suburban housewife walked all over by her husband Louis (David Denman) and two sons, is gifted a 1000-piece jigsaw for her birthday. Completing it twice in a short space of time, she takes the train into New York in search of more puzzles (Agnes is more than a bit old-fashioned, so presumably hasn’t heard of the internet). There she meets Robert (Irrfan Khan), a puzzle fanatic in need of a partner for the National Jigsaw Championships.

As the pair practice for the upcoming tournament, the companionship Robert offers brings out a noticeable change in Agnes. Having devoted her life to her family, she begins to question what her own desires and ambitions are, and finally starts to stand up to her inattentive, entitled husband. Agnes decides to keep her New York visits to Robert a secret, and it becomes clear that their unusual relationship might not be as platonic as Agnes has convinced herself it is.

For a film that might as well have been titled ‘Character Development: The Movie’, Puzzle does a pretty lousy job at characterisation. The screenwriters clearly don’t know how to handle their protagonist, and the film never gets as close to her inner life as it should. Kelly Macdonald does her best to bring Agnes to life – she gives her a subdued, stilted way of speaking that sometimes gives way to an unnatural nervous energy – and a few hints in the script suggest she’s suffering from an undiagnosed anxiety disorder.

But though Agnes’s portrayal is supposedly sympathetic, you have to wonder why the writers would create such a character only to patronise her at every instance. She’s a technophobe who can’t work her new smartphone; she finds it hard to use public transport; she receives an ash cross on her head at a church service and forgets it’s there; and she reveals, upon meeting her son’s caricatured Buddhist vegan girlfriend, that she doesn’t know what Buddhism or veganism are. These contrivances – cynically played for laughs – never ring true, nor do they amount to an engaging heroine.

The supporting characters are even flakier. Agnes’s husband Louis is nothing much more than a means of exploring a certain form of toxic masculinity, and even then the film offers few insights – snoring loudly is apparently his worst crime. Then there’s Agnes’s son Ziggy (Bubba Weiler, giving an terribly intense and intensely terrible performance) who gets a laughably slight, Billy-Elliot-esque subplot concerning his dreams of becoming a chef. Irrfan Khan is decent as puzzleman Robert, but his character is wasted loudly spelling out the film’s predictable themes.

“Life is random,” according to Robert, and his hobby is “a way to control the chaos”. It’s a cute metaphor, but one on which the film rests far too heavily. Combined with familiar narrative beats, leisurely pacing and a lacklustre score, it all starts to get a bit tedious. The film doesn’t even spend time on the puzzle competition, making it possibly the only film that would be massively improved by featuring more competitive puzzling. And while its vaguely feminist trajectory is pleasant enough, it’s hardly inspiring – though the film might just inspire a nap.

Puzzle isn’t an obvious trainwreck, but it’s such a lacklustre, forgettable film you might just wish it was. I'd honestly much rather see a film that reaches for the stars and comes crashing back down than one that reaches for the ceiling and only just about makes it.

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