PUZZLE

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

You know what? I would have liked Puzzle a lot more if it didn't insist on turning the relationship between the two co-leads into a romance. Why couldn't Agnes (Kelley Macdonald) become an independent woman in the process of partnering with Robert (Irrfan Khan) in competitive puzzling without the two of them winding up in bed together?

--Oh, right. Spoiler alert! I guess I was supposed to say that before revealing that they sleep together. Rest assured that it hardly matters to the broad point of the story. And that's kind of the problem, really -- this turn of events is not integral to the plot. It's the one thing that feels a bit shoehorned in, as though some studio executive had told the script writers, "This needs a love story!"

And the thing is, it basically already has one: Agnes is a decidedly old-school, Catholic church-going housewife, whose husband Louie (David Denman) is a good guy but basically takes her for granted. She's got two loving teenage sons (Austin Abrams and Bubba Weiler) and a busy but increasingly unfulfilling domestic life.

At Agnes's birthday party where she's doing all the work as hostess, one of the gifts she's given is a jigsaw puzzle. As director Marc Turtletaub introduces us to Agnes's family at this party, Puzzle eases gently into her increasingly acute interest in puzzles. As she and Louie discuss their concerns about their sons, she's in bed reading a pamphlet on puzzling strategy. Who even knew there was such a thing?

Interested in more, similar puzzles, Agnes finds out from the gift giver where it was purchased, and she takes the train into New York City -- and at the puzzle store in Manhattan, she finds a flyer for someone "desperate" for a puzzling partner eager to get into a national competition. This is how she meets Robert, an independently wealthy divorcée riding on a patent and now with a lot of time on his hands. He's delighted to witness how quickly Agnes can put puzzles together.

Puzzle would have been a better film had the story left it at that: a middle-aged woman discovering a passion that serves as a route to independence and assertiveness. Even how this affects her relationship with her husband could have been just as effectively examined without it involving this other guy falling in love with her. That aspect of the story makes Puzzle way too much like way too many other movies.

At least no other movies are about competitive puzzling. This movie could have used more about how such competitions go down, rather than focusing on romantic confusion and sexual misguidedness.

Such as it is, though, Puzzle remains a pleasantly understated story with a dash of subtle feminism. Most importantly, the cast is as lovely as they can be, and Kelley Macdonald and Irrfan Khan make a pair with surprising chemistry. Even if the story arc itself fundamentally lacks innovation, it's nice just hanging out with them for a couple of hours.

  Kelley Macdonald and Irrfan Khan pretend to think outside the box even though they don't really.

Kelley Macdonald and Irrfan Khan pretend to think outside the box even though they don't really.

Overall: B