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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

Face it, sometimes life is just a ‘Puzzle’

The film "Puzzle" continues to play at the Magic Lantern. Following is my review of the film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

When we first meet 40-something Agnes, the protagonist of Marc Turtletaub’s small working-class study titled “Puzzle,” she doesn’t make much of an impression. In fact, even though she is played by the talented Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (affecting, as many UK actors can, an effective American accent), Agnes seems almost to be sleepwalking, which is – we’re led to believe – maybe how she has been acting throughout her life.

Not that she just sits around the house. The wife of Louie, owner-operator of an auto-repair shop, and mother of two grown sons – the restless Ziggy and the spoiled Gabe – Agnes spends her days cleaning house, washing clothes, preparing meals and doing all the other chores necessary to take care of her boys.

At times, though, Agnes seems – well, disconnected. And not just from her family and friends but from life itself. That fact becomes evident in the movie’s opening scene in which she is shown hosting her own birthday party. Behind her questioning expression, and sad little smile, she seems to be echoing the classic Peggy Lee line: “Is that all there is?

Then providence strikes. One of her birthday presents is a jigsaw puzzle. And almost before you can say Map of the World, she has completed it. For the first time, her smile seems genuine.

This, of course, sends Agnes on a quest, as most obsessions tend to do. Soon she is taking the train into Manhattan in search of more puzzles. And not long after that she seeks out someone searching for a puzzle partner, someone with whom he – and naturally it’s a he, a man named Robert, played by Indian-born actor Irrfan Khan – can team up with to enter a national jigsaw puzzle contest.

So the plot is set. And if “Puzzle” were like several other movies, that would be where it would go, focusing on the drama inherent in any kind of competition, be it athletic or intellectual.

That, though, is where Turtletaub’s film – which was adapted from Argentine writer-director Natalia Smirnoff’s 2009 film “Rompecabezas” – breaks form. Yes, there is a competition, and Agnes and Robert do participate, but that is not the principal emphasis of “Puzzle.” Agnes’ awakening is.

Yet her awakening isn’t simplistic. She doesn’t understand what’s happening to her any more than those around her, especially her husband (played by David Denman) who despite his over-protective, paternalistic and often condescending manner, does indeed care for his wife. And who despite his limitations is fighting his own battle, choosing not to follow in the footsteps of his own father – steps that, again we’re led to believe, might lead to violence.

Which is the strength of “Puzzle,” the fact that it refuses to portray both these characters and the situations they find themselves in as mere clichés. That the film doesn’t, ultimately, offer any easy solutions either for Agnes or her family might feel to some moviegoers as too open-ended to be fully satisfying.

All too often, though, life is just like that. It’s a puzzle in which some of the pieces just don’t fit.