Monday, February 11, 2019

Puzzle Pieces

Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle.

Agnes, the Bridgeport, Connecticut working-class housewife played by Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle, seems to live on the periphery of her family. We don’t know how long she’s felt remote from her husband Louie (David Denman) and (to a lesser degree) from her two sons, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler), who works with his dad in his car repair shop, and Gabe (Austin Abrams), who is revving up for college and whose forthright – and somewhat irritating – girlfriend (Liv Hewson) professes to be a Buddhist. Agnes loves her sons; she’s the parent who exercises sensitivity with them, while Louie’s immediate response to anything they do that doesn’t fit into his old-school masculine vision is a mixture of bafflement and stubborn opposition. It’s clear that she cares for Louie, too, but his stubbornness wears her down. When he throws a birthday party for her, she does all the work, and he doesn’t make a fuss over her; if it weren’t for the birthday cake (which she has baked) and candles, you’d think it was just a get-together of friends and family.

One of the guests gives her a jigsaw puzzle as a present, and she discovers she’s remarkably good at putting it together; she never went to college herself but she has a math brain – she sees patterns. When she takes a rare commuter-train trip to Manhattan to the puzzle store where her friend bought it to choose another one, she sees a card at the cash from another puzzler who’s looking for a partner for a competition, so they arrange to meet. Robert (Irrfan Khan) lives alone – his wife, his last puzzle partner, walked out on him – and he lives on the income from a successful invention (the only one, he tells her, he’s ever devised). When he tests her on a puzzle and sees how speedy she is, he’s sure they’re a match. We can see this is the first time in her adult life that she’s found something of her own, away from her family and her domestic obligations. But Louie thinks that this new hobby is childish, lacking in seriousness, so she doesn’t tell him about Robert. Instead she claims that her aunt, who has had surgery on her leg, has asked her to visit a couple of times a week to help with errands. Louie isn’t pleased: he thinks Agnes is being taken advantage of, and that he can use her help with the accounts at the garage. So she slips off to see Robert in the city and fibs about it to Louie and the boys until they catch her in one of her lies. By that time the visits have become more complicated, because she and Robert have begun to have feelings for each other.

The talented Scots actress Kelly Macdonald illustrates Agnes’s emotions – her tentativeness and discomfort, her increasing resistance to her husband’s impulse to control the behavior of the rest of the family and his reflex dismissiveness, her curiosity and terse outbursts of affection – in the way she angles herself in a room and the kinds of tension in her face. Macdonald has appeared in dozens of movies, including Finding Neverland (as the actress who plays Peter Pan) and No Country for Old Men (as Josh Brolin’s doomed wife, Carla Jean), and I’ve loved her especially in Intermission and Gosford Park (where she’s Mary Maceachran, the lady’s maid who solves the murder) and the British TV miniseries State of Play. Quirky Agnes, who has to work out the puzzle of her own life, may be the loveliest role she’s ever had, and she’s marvelous in it.

The movie isn’t a romantic comedy; it’s one of those movies in which the protagonist discovers who she is in middle age. So it’s not focused on her relationship with Robert; Louie has about the same amount of screen time. I always enjoy watching Irrfan Khan, and his oddness as Robert, who is both understated and challenging, and whose humor Agnes often finds befuddling, presents a pleasing contrast to Louie’s flat-footed forcefulness. Denman is excellent as well. It would have been easy to make Louie an asshole, but the writers, Polly Mann and Oren Moverman (who based their screenplay on an Argentinian film called Rompecabezas), and the director Marc Turtletaub, aren’t interested in that kind of reductiveness. He’s certainly sometimes infuriating, but he adores his wife; it’s just that he lacks the imagination to see that she’s unhappy and then, once he realizes it, to know how to fix it. When he tells her, “I thank God every day for you, Agnes,” he’s not blowing smoke or mouthing platitudes; you can see that he means it, just as you know Ziggy means it when he tells his mother that he envies her because she’s good at everything and he feels he can’t do anything well. The problem is that both Louie and Ziggy are measuring her based on tasks that, she comes to realize in the course of the picture, don’t bring enough out of her. Whenever she pushes Louie out of his conventional approach, his automatic reaction is to look ill at ease and push back against her suggestions; only after he’s had a chance to take them in does he change his mind. Looking over the accounts at the garage, she realizes that they can’t afford to send Gabe to college unless they sell their cabin in the country, on a lake Louie loves to fish. But when she talks to him about it, he won’t even consider it; he claims that fishing is the most important thing in his life – which isn’t, of course, what he means, though it makes her furious. Then, a few days later, he announces her plan at dinner, having mulled it over and arrived at her conclusion. The suddenness and intractability of the way he presents it also infuriates her; he skipped right over the part where the two of them discuss it and arrive at the decision in tandem. But Louie doesn’t understand why she gets upset; as far as he’s concerned, he’s done exactly what she wanted. And to be fair, feeling as she does about him – and given her newly minted attraction to Robert – it’s not likely that he can do anything that won’t upset her. But God knows he isn’t good at negotiations. They have a big fight when she tells him that Ziggy, who has confided in her, wants to go to culinary school because cooking is the only activity that gives him pleasure. Louie proclaims that cooking is unmanly, and then he asks her, his anger rising, if she has any idea what his father would have done to his mother if she’d made such a suggestion. He grabs Agnes and starts to shake her, then pulls back in horror and insists, as much to himself as to her, “I’m not my father.”

This moment is symptomatic of what I liked best about Puzzle (besides Macdonald’s acting). Robert suggests that the reason Agnes enjoys puzzling so much is that she can control the outcome and wind up with a perfect whole where everything fits together, the way it never does in life. The movie is on the life end of the spectrum; it doesn’t all fit together. The characters act in ways that surprise you, and the film keeps moving sidelong to accommodate them. You walk away with the characters in your head, arranged every which way.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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