There isn't really anything puzzling about Puzzle. The sedate drama based on a 2010 Argentinian film presents the gradual empowerment of a sheltered suburban housewife in a way that is rarely surprising and never daring, but the quietly strong lead performance from Kelly Macdonald keeps the movie from falling completely flat.
Macdonald plays Agnes, a stay-at-home wife and mother in the New York City suburbs, whose entire life revolves around taking care of her husband and two teenage sons, cooking meals, running errands and participating in church activities. She's so sheltered that she's baffled by the smartphone that she gets for her birthday, and she isn't familiar with either veganism or Buddhism when her son brings home a girlfriend who subscribes to both.
Agnes also gets a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle for her birthday, and it awakens a hidden need that she's either been repressing or was never aware of. She finishes the entire puzzle in a single afternoon, discovering that she is apparently some sort of jigsaw-puzzle savant. She takes her newfound obsession to a puzzle store in the city, where she finds an ad from puzzle champion Robert (Irrfan Khan), who's looking for a new competition partner after his previous teammate (and wife) left him.
Robert is an eccentric, independently wealthy inventor, and his companionship does as much as the puzzling does to bring Agnes out of her shell and help her realize how constrained her life has been. Her oafish husband Louie (David Denman) is quick to compliment and praise her, but he also expects complete obedience, without any deviation from traditional gender roles. Agnes' sons are much more receptive to her change in attitude: The oldest, who works alongside his dad at the family auto repair shop, secretly dreams of becoming a chef, and the youngest wants to follow his vegan Buddhist girlfriend on a journey to Tibet.
It's all pretty low-stakes stuff, and director Marc Turtletaub presents it in a subdued manner that often drains the urgency from even the most dramatic moments. Although both Agnes and Robert are fixated on puzzles and use them as a way to escape their various personal issues, the movie doesn't give much of a sense of the wonder or appeal of puzzle-solving, and the climactic puzzle competition occurs almost entirely offscreen. Without delving into the details of that unique subculture, the movie loses its most distinctive hook. Agnes' journey of self-discovery might as well come via quilting or stamp collecting or Scrabble or any other interchangeable hobby.
Macdonald's American accent is sometimes shaky, but otherwise she delivers a captivating performance, keeping most of Agnes' emotions internal, only erupting after they simmer for nearly the entire movie, and even then expressing them in short, defined bursts. Khan's performance is more exuberant, which fits his off-kilter character but makes it tough for the two main stars to connect, especially as the characters' relationship grows more intimate in the movie's second half. Denman has trouble finding a balance as the husband who at first seems compassionate if clueless, but reveals himself to be more cruel and demanding as the plot progresses. It's hard to imagine Agnes having a high level of passion for either man.
The screenplay by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann eventually gets a little speech-y, and it strains to say something more profound about life in a way that rings a bit false as the movie starts to wrap up. Puzzle is best when it's as modest as its heroine, showing how even a small, seemingly mundane change can make a meaningful difference in the life of someone whose world is so limited.♦