Film Review: Paterson

Jim Jarmusch’s elegantly minimal and wryly comic study of Adam Driver’s bus driver-poet celebrates and exemplifies a sturdy American vision of art as labor.
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Proudly reinforcing the at-times under-siege notion that there is great, grasping life yet in American filmmaking, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a simple story told with power, complexity and vision. Like many of the Frank O’Hara or William Carlos Williams poems that the film’s namesake protagonist (Adam Driver) reads and re-reads, the film is a poignant portrait of the mundane, a singing symphony of the everyday. It’s also a comedy, a romance, a paean to American post-industrial resilience, and a sublimely enjoyable work of art about a bus driver who writes poems that he doesn’t seem to care if anybody ever reads. There’s a lot here, folded like tightly coiled wires under the seemingly placid surface.

Paterson’s nonchalance towards anybody ever appreciating his art is deceptive, of course. He approaches his art with the same routine and care that shows in his everyday life. Jarmusch follows a week in his life, each day running in much the same way. Paterson awakes, kisses his slumbering wife Laura (About Elly’s wonderful Golshifteh Farahani, showing again Jarmusch’s knack for counterintuitive international casting) goodbye, and walks to work at the bus depot in the New Jersey town that bears his name.

In his mind, Paterson composes his work, short verses whose plainspoken phrasing packs a whiplash emotional resonance; the verses themselves are by American poet Ron Padgett. On breaks, he’ll put them to paper, bent over his notebook like a carpenter over his saw. Nights, he takes his dog for a walk and stops for a beer at his local bar to talk with the owner Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley). About the only thing that breaks the routine is what new thing the very unemployed and relentlessly creative Laura has decorated in their small bungalow while he was at work. The warm characterizations and quietly humorous quirks call to mind some of Jonathan Demme’s early work, and feel like a return to form for the more recently abstruse Jarmusch.

It’s a testament to Jarmusch’s skill and humane perspective that none of this registers as the precious miniaturization of some life under glass or a sour commentary on the character’s rigidity. There’s a resoluteness of purpose to Paterson’s routines and a completeness that reads as contentment rather than narrow-mindedness. For all the grooves he wears in that sidewalk between the depot and his house, Paterson leaves himself open to what life has to offer. He listens eagerly, without being obvious about it, to the conversations his passengers have, whether they’re on girls or the history of Paterson. A chance overhearing of a man practicing his rap in an otherwise empty laundromat late one night (Method Man) leads to a brief, appreciative exchange from one lover of words to another. Each night at Doc’s leads to another window into humanity, from the comically ever-breaking-up couple Doc calls “our Romeo and Juliet” to the little nods to Paterson history. All of this is, of course, just grist for the verses that Laura insists he share with the world.

Paterson’s diffidence is to be expected for a Jarmusch hero. They have always operated on their own laconic timeline, whether John Lurie’s beat slacker from Stranger Than Paradise, Bill Murray’s baffled depressive from Broken Flowers or the vampire beauties of Only Lovers Left Alive. Time is never an issue. That centered, slightly downbeat but nevertheless contented peace radiates through the surprisingly joyful Paterson, a film where Laura’s big cupcake bake-off constitutes a major plot development and a drawn handgun turns out to be only a foam pellet-shooting toy. It would probably be going too far to say that Jarmusch is consciously channeling Thoreau here. But who else are we supposed to think of as Paterson labors away in his modest dwelling (writing his verse at a workbench that seems more practical solution than affectation) and stripping his life of modern burdens like smartphones and television?

An appreciation of the past echoes through here. But unlike the strictly retro-cool vibe that some of Jarmusch’s earlier work has trafficked in (Mystery Train), this time out he’s nodding to a notion of 20th-century working-class pride, whether it’s the metal lunch pail that Paterson carries with him, or the faded brick factory walls he passes on his daily walk, or the near-utter lack of modern media. The film isn’t aiming for some frozen sense of nostalgia, the cast is too racially mixed and plugged into 21st-century anxieties for that to be the case. Jarmusch is in celebratory mode here, though, looking for quotidian beauty and a Zen-like appreciation of the glories of happenstance. He finds it, in spades.

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