Adapted from the Argentine film Rompecabezas, this quiet indie drama from producer/director Marc Turtletaub centers on Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), an unworldly and underappreciated housewife who is inspired to assert her own identity after discovering a latent talent for competitive jigsaw puzzling. Best known as the producer of Little Miss Sunshine, Turtletaub has assembled an impressive team, from veteran character actor Macdonald and international superstar Irrfan Khan to screenwriter Oren Moverman (The Dinner, Love & Mercy). Nevertheless, the film suffers from a nagging sense of professional detachment.
The only woman in a household of men, Agnes is exiled to the periphery and ignored until something goes wrong. Her husband, Louie (David Denman), is loving but has no concept of her selfhood; he thinks nothing of demanding that she help with the accounting for his auto business on top of her housework. Her younger son, college-bound Gabe (Austin Abrams), treats her with open disdain, assisted by his obnoxious vegan Buddhist girlfriend (Liv Hewson). Older son Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) is a more sensitive soul, and his growing relationship with Agnes is the most compelling subplot.
Into this claustrophobic environment comes a fateful birthday gift: a one-thousand-piece puzzle in the shape of a world map. Agnes finishes it in an afternoon. Soon, to visit a Manhattan puzzle boutique, she takes her first trip from Bridgeport to New York in years. An ad for a competitive-puzzling partner leads her to the palatial yet empty brownstone of Robert (Khan), a lonely, eccentric divorcé. It's a quirky take on a romance-novel scenario, and Macdonald and Khan play their scenes with an understated self-awareness that, at its best, turns the improbability of this relationship into a virtue.
Though I haven't seen Natalia Smirnoff's original film, much of what doesn't quite work about the remake seems to stem from the shift in context from Buenos Aires to the Tri-state area. Associating Agnes's stifling family life with blue-collar suburbia and her self-realization with the cosmopolitan city reads as condescending, given how little either milieu is fleshed out beyond a few obvious clichés. Nor do we learn much about the competitive puzzling world; the action (such as it is) is kept to the edges of the screen as a vague metaphor.
The movie stakes everything on its portrait of Agnes. But no matter how much screen time Turtletaub devotes to her facial reactions, we don't see much of her character beyond an extreme unfamiliarity with the modern world, hammered home through faux pas like her inability to use an iPhone and her assumption that vegans can eat chicken. When Gabe's college-entrance essay callously uses her as a negative example of a sheltered person, all she can do is agree. Because we're kept on the outside of her desires and drives, it's hard to see her transformation, especially in the anticlimactic ending, as much more than an endorsement of middle-class tourism à la Eat Pray Love.