Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 09, 2018 6:03 am 
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Puzzle is a movie that holds out intriguing possibilities for a while and has some very nice performances, but eventually leaves one wanting. There's something puzzlingly anachronistic about the family of Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), a selfless suburban housewife. She, her husband Louie (David Denman), who runs a garage, and their two sons, Gabe (Austin Abrams) and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) are like the household in the Seventies TV series, "All in the Family," only it's just not exaggerated and funny. Agnes gets up her men in the morning, fixes breakfast for them, runs around, volunteers at her Catholic church, and rushes back to prepare a nice dinner. He runs his local garage, not very successfully it seems. Ziggy works there, not too happily. Gabe could be getting ready for college. Agnes isn't hilariously clueless like Edith Bunker. Louie isn't an obvious bigot like Archie. But they live within the same restrictions.

And why? To allow Agnes a chance to break out when she discovers a passion, by giving herself a birthday party at home, where she gets a jigsaw puzzle and a smart phone as presents. She finds she's a puzzle-solving prodigy, and she answers a notice at a store in Manhattan called Puzzle Mania leading her to an exotic rich man - played by the fascinating Indian actor, Irfan Khan, of The Lunchbox (but why is he given the name "Robert"?), who needs a partner for puzzle competitions.

There are some scenes early on that are to savor - particularly when Agnes first goes to meet "Robert" at his austere, rather grand, Manhattan apartment (he's rich, from one invention). Khan manages to be sly, sexy, and mysterious. Macdonald makes Agnes' underwritten part an interesting mix of confused and strong, clueless and intuitive: her changing expressions give her role many more facets than Oren Moverman's incomplete writing for producer Marc Turtletaub in this directorial debut.

This is a story of midlife crisis and the discovery of a passion, but by the end the passion - apparently - gets shunted aside, and we're left frustrated, wondering why things have happened this way and why the promise of those early scenes between Agnes and "Robert" has faded.

For one thing, the world of jigsaw puzzling and competing. For sure seeing parts fitted together to form flowers or a landscape or the Mona Lisa is like watching paint dry. But this is made even duller than it otherwise is by a lack of detail. Eventually it's clear that "Robert's" part, like Agnes', is underwritten, that their little romance is stingy, besides, incidentally, being irrelevant, because the real story isn't the competition, which is slid over, but Agnes' discovery of a passion and the ticket it might provide out of her domestic trap. Then, there's a giant red herring in the form of the family's country retreat, a cabin on a lake, and the decision, awkwardly made, to leverage it into a solution to the boys' future. And the boys also have too little to do. Ziggy isn't happy at the garage and wants to be a cook, but this is a parallel to Agnes' story that's undeveloped.

There is a sort of zen mystery in the movie's early scenes about Agnes and her family's anachronistic behavior. Louie, though pitifully limited, is sympathetic and sweet. But "underwritten" and "underdeveloped" wind up being key words in any description of this little picture, which for twenty minutes seemed like it was going to be one of my favorite movies of 2018, and then fell out of the running. Like the jigsaw puzzles, this story is put together and taken apart, put together and taken apart - a dazzling feat for moments, then left half finished. Puzzle is adapted from Argentine director Natalia Smirnoff’s admired 2010 film Rompecabezas, by reports, a much more interesting film. But though Puzzle falls short, it's not as though it offers no pleasures or moments when thoughts are provoked. Sometimes hints and promises are enough to make a movie work for you.

Puzzle, whose runt-time is 104 minutes, debuted at Sundance, and was bought there by Sony Pictures Classics for an impressive $5 million. Some loved it, obviously. But Peter Debruge wrote then in Variety that "Where Rompecabezas ("The Puzzle") felt personal, its retelling seems patronizing — or at the very least pathetic, presented with the kind of solemnity you’d expect while reading a suicide note, " which I noted at the time, sounded "hugely unpromising." Nine other festivals, prior to a US limited release by Sony that began 27 July 2018 in NYC and LA. It is now playing in NYC at Angelika, Landmark at 57th Street and and City Cinemas; in San Francisco at Landmark Embarcadero. It opens at Landmark Albany Twin Fri., 10 Aug. Metascore 66%.

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