There’s a scene early on in director Marc Turtletaub’s new film “Puzzle” that reflects just how insular and sheltered his main character Agnes has always been. One of her sons has brought his girlfriend home for dinner and Agnes is startled to discover the girl doesn’t eat any meat at all.
When the girlfriend gently explains that she is a Buddhist, Agnes (played by an excellent Kelly Macdonald) is bewildered. “I always hear people talking about Buddhism and celebrities who are Buddhist, but no one says what it is,” she replies.
Perhaps Agnes’ confusion should not be that hard to understand. Moviegoers discover that though she is fiercely intelligent and exceptionally good with numbers and logic problems, Agnes never had the opportunity to attend college and it is unclear if she ever worked outside of the home at all.
While she lives in Connecticut, “Puzzle” does not showcase the tony homes and lifestyles viewers of shows like the “Gilmore Girls” are used to seeing. Instead, Agnes and her family live in a working class neighborhood in Bridgeport. Like the rest of the state, Bridgeport is heavily segregated, which probably explains why there are no characters of color to be seen anywhere in the portions of the film set in the state.
Instead her world revolves around her two grown sons, who work for her husband’s auto body shop and her church.
Both anxiety and the specter of lost chances loom over Agnes throughout “Puzzle.” It’s clear that the 40-something housewife and mother of two longs for something more but cannot define what that something would be or how she could possibly attain it.
That slowly begins to change when Agnes receives a jigsaw puzzle as a birthday gift after a family party. The puzzle is fittingly a map of the world and Agnes lights up at the chance to solve it, which she does with surprising speed. The need to get her hands on more (and better) puzzles even drives her to do something she very rarely does, which is to get a train to Manhattan in order to purchase some from a specialty board game shop.
It is there that she sees a mysterious advertisement from an “expert” puzzle player who is looking for a partner. After hours of anxious rumination, she nervously texts the puzzle expert, who turns out to be an Indian entrepreneur named Robert, played to perfection by Irrfan Khan.
Aside from their passion for puzzles, Robert is as different from Agnes as anyone could possibly be. He is a ridiculously wealthy man living in a Manhattan townhouse. She flinches at the fact that getting to Manhattan from Bridgeport means that she has to pay $20 for a train ticket. While she never watches the news and seems drawn to the order of puzzles because she cannot seem to control her own family, Robert waxes poetic about world affairs and treats the world as his exploring ground.
Despite those differences, Robert treats Agnes the way no one else in her life seems to: as an equal. The two quickly decide to begin playing in competitive puzzle tournaments together, a decision that for Agnes has wide ranging consequences. The white lies she tells to sneak off to Manhattan quickly begin adding up and her family struggles to adjust to the fact that she is not at their beck and call at every second.
Being a foreigner in Robert’s orbit is for the most part a novel and immensely rewarding experience for Agnes and Macdonald deftly conveys the character’s mix of fear and excitement as her world finally begins to get bigger.
There is not a hint of pity or condescension in Khan’s performance and he imbues Robert with both, a sense of wonder and gratitude. But perhaps the most intriguing moment in “Puzzle” comes when Agnes asks him about his successful career as a tech inventor.
At a time when our social media feeds are filled with tech millionaires opining on the importance of a strong work ethic and how the world is a meritocracy, Robert’s answer was particularly refreshing. He tells Agnes that his success can merely be attributed to luck and chance.
“Puzzle” is currently playing in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles.