“Genuinely affecting moments of liberation and subtle defiance.”
Our first coverage of the film festival. Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller will keep them rolling.
As she addressed the gathered public at the opening screening of the 72nd Edinburgh International Film Festival on Wednesday, Kelly Macdonald expressed both gratitude — that her new film, Puzzle, directed by former producer Marc Turtletaub, was opening Scotland’s foremost film festival — and amusement that in it the Glasgow-born actress was playing an American. “I’m in nearly every frame of the film,” Macdonald continued, “so I’m sorry! But you’re in your seats and the doors are locked so you can’t leave now!”
From that introduction, one might expect Puzzle to be a point of embarrassment for the experienced actress. Macdonald has worked with talent as renowned as the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men), Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire), and Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, T2), yet Puzzle marks her first prominent, meaty leading role. Macdonald oughtn’t be embarrassed by her work in Turtletaub’s film, however, quite the opposite; yet by the time the credits roll, one is left wishing she was given more to do within all those frames.
This, Turtletaub’s directorial debut, is a remake of Argentinian film Rompecabezas, directed by Natalia Smirnoff in 2009, and follows shrinking violet suburban housewife Agnes (Macdonald) as she gradually sheds the suffocating monotony of her daily life caring for her boorish husband (David Denman) and two insufferable teenage sons. In the film’s opening sequence, a stylistic high point in an otherwise unremarkable storytelling strategy, Agnes diligently weaves through a house party, existing in the background as her guests make a mess and ignore her. After a few minutes of watching her scrub and kowtow, Agnes reveals an impressive birthday cake, and the guests sing Happy Birthday to … her. Her servile existence at her own birthday celebration presents a perfect introduction to the character as a product of circumstance. As Agnes unwraps her presents, she finds a 1,000-piece puzzle, which, although average citizens remark it will take days to complete, she finishes within half an afternoon. Soon, she seeks out more puzzles, and through them, more control, more exploration, and more freedom, assisted along the way by her serendipitously-met “puzzle partner” Robert (Irrfan Khan). To its credit, though the initial setup of a film based entirely on one person’s self-discovery through 1,000-piece puzzles seems like an aggressively dull use of 103 minutes, the film manages to achieve some genuinely affecting moments of liberation and subtle defiance that avoid total insignificance.
Unfortunately, I would not blame viewers for tuning out before these moments are reached, for despite that beginning, Puzzle begins to lose its grasp over its plot’s moving pieces quite quickly. Turtletaub, though partially responsible in his role as a producer on films such as Little Miss Sunshine and Loving for some of the more compelling family-based stories of the 21st century, can’t quite master the art of keeping the story fresh and maintaining depth. Too often, the dialogue between Agnes and her family lists into high-school-play levels of one-dimensionality, with displeasing references to veganism, Buddhism, and masculinity in “today’s youth” that come off as tone-deaf. Nearly every stereotypical “overdramatic indie film” line you can imagine is somewhere to be found in here, which becomes frustrating — not to mention its lamentably obvious central metaphor. In case you hadn’t guessed, the eponymous activity comes to represent the unsolvable puzzles in Agnes’s own life, and yes, there is a dramatic monologue about the cosmic connection between solving a particularly hard 1,000-piecer and solving yourself. (Though, to be fair, it is delivered by Mr. Khan, who continues to elevate uninteresting Hollywood ideas with his undeniable charm and masterful delivery — though the words he recites are unoriginal and formulaic, his performance of them is everything but.)
Overall, Puzzle does a lot more telling than it does showing. It is less a film than an overlong Hallmark ad, with a semi-profound lesson in there somewhere that is often overlooked in favor of ‘family drama’ beats that we have all seen before, repeatedly. If you are looking for bombast, style, or cutting-edge storytelling, all of which this year’s EIFF promises to offer by measure over the next two weeks, Turtletaub’s film is not for you. Yet, though such a clichéd film is a puzzling choice to open such a dynamic festival, as a calm, pensive look at a chronically overlooked type of person, this film fits well.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 20 June)
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