Jigsaw puzzling, as devotees call it, isn’t the world’s sexiest activity, but it inspires a life-changing journey for the undervalued wife and mom at the center of “Puzzle.” This modest movie opening Aug. 3 at the Embarcadero has simplistic elements, but screen treasure Kelly Macdonald gives its heroine a winningly offbeat grace and quiet power.
Marc Turtletaub, a longtime producer of smallish films, directs the drama conventionally but with impressive humanity, working from a screenplay by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann. Based on an Argentinean film, the story combines a contemporary fairy tale and, more successfully, a self-discovery adventure.
Fortyish Agnes (Macdonald) lives with her auto-mechanic husband, Louie (David Denman), and their college-age sons (Bubba Weiler, Austin Abrams) in the Connecticut house she grew up in. Agnes selflessly devotes herself to her family, who do little in return. The opening passage shows her vacuuming the floor, decorating the house, and baking a cake — for her own birthday party.
Agnes doesn’t enthuse over the smartphone she’s received as a gift, but the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle pleases her. Good at putting things into place, she completes the puzzle prodigiously.
At a Manhattan puzzle store, Agnes buys more puzzles and sees a notice placed by a puzzle champion who seeks a tournament partner. Soon, she is regularly visiting the man — a wealthy, worldly inventor named Robert (Irrfan Khan), whose previous puzzle partner, also his wife, has left him.
Romantic feelings develop between the two as they prepare for a competition. Agnes lies to her family about where she’s been all day. Her sudden assertiveness and rejection of the traditional homemaker role she’s long played flummox Louie.
Turtletaub’s directing isn’t original or punchy, and as a fairy tale, the story wobbles. The Agnes-Robert love affair feels contrived and obligatory, with Robert serving as a romance-novel-style Prince Charming who expands Agnes’ horizons and makes Agnes feel desirable.
Shallow symbolism, too, is a problem. The first puzzle that boxed-in Agnes completes contains a map of the world, for instance.
But by remaining plugged into Agnes’ emotions, focusing on her rising sense of who she is and what she wants, and by giving Macdonald the space and attention she needs to convey these factors, Turtletaub has made a modest charmer about puzzles, purposes and a woman forging her path.
Macdonald’s Agnes, a mix of Cinderella, Ibsen’s Nora and the actress’ own subtly gripping creation, makes for an exciting watch as her unquestioning tone increasingly takes on a defiant quality. Usually cast in supporting roles, she commands the screen in a leading turn. In her hands, Agnes, who’s the sort of individual most people barely notice, becomes thrilling.
Her scenes with Khan, a deadpan delight despite his plot line’s lack of credibility, deliver the necessary appeal, while those with Denham’s decent but clueless Louie contain warmth along with edge.
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman, Bubba Weiler
Written by: Oren Moverman, Polly Mann
Directed by: Marc Turtletaub
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes