In Paterson, Jim Jarmusch Offers a Paean to Life's Small Wonders

Jan 11, 2017 at 6:00 am
Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani share another quiet dinner together.
Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani share another quiet dinner together. Mary Cybulski / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street

Some viewers may complain that nothing much happens in Paterson, Jim Jarmusch's new hymn to everyday life in New Jersey's third largest city, but they'd be missing the point. The film is like an optical illusion; you have to watch very closely before you notice that what appears to be a stationary image has changed or turned into something entirely new. With its modest settings, deliberate, carefully timed repetitions, and deadpan humor so underplayed that some viewers may not notice it at all, Jarmusch's warmhearted shaggy-dog story about a seemingly mundane world follows a logic of its own and finds poetry — and not just the written kind — in the loose ends and random interactions of the ordinary world.

Paterson's Everyman hero is a soft-spoken bus driver, also named Paterson, with a secret passion for writing poetry that reflects and acknowledges the pedestrian quality of his life. The film is divided into seven seemingly similar sections. Each begins with Paterson in bed, waiting for his 6 a.m. alarm to go off. He gets up, eats breakfast and walks to work. At night, he stops to observe the Great Falls of the Passaic River, then goes home to admire his wife Laura's latest monochromatic artistic fancy (she paints black-and-white shower curtains, buys a black-and-white guitar and bakes black-and-white cupcakes). After dinner he walks his remarkably indifferent bulldog, Marvin (the closest thing to a villain that the movie can muster up), and makes a nightly stop at a local tavern where he checks in with his neighbors and discusses famous Paterson residents of the past (Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, Lou Costello, one-half of Sam and Dave).

And so it goes, one day after another. But part of the deceptive charm of the film is that Paterson's daily routine is never entirely the same, and the small details that make up each day — Laura's black-and-white obsession, the doomed romance of two bar patrons, the front yard mailbox that tilts over daily — gradually evolve into narrative elements that are perhaps too subtle to be called payoffs but give the film a sense of an unpredictable yet satisfying logic.

The spiritual godfather behind all of this is, of course, another Paterson resident, William Carlos Williams (or as Laura calls him, "Carlos William Carlos"). Another poet with a day job who devoted his literary life to celebrating the ordinary, Williams' collected writings include a five-volume work chronicling the everyday romance of his hometown. Paterson reveres Williams' poems and sees him as a spiritual mentor, but I don't think Jarmusch is trying to suggest that his character is in the same league. It's not even clear if his poems are supposed to be particularly good. This is not a film in which an unappreciated artist holds forth on his aesthetic purity to an unappreciative world. (If you want that sort of thing, see Ryan Gosling in La La Land.) Paterson writes poetry, but more importantly, he reads it. It's his way of filtering the world around him, whether it's between book covers or coming from his own hand.

With his long face and loyal-dog sincerity, Adam Driver is perfect as the seemingly unflappable hero, a man who puts in a day's work without passing judgment on what it presents. He's at the center of every scene, absorbing everything around him. When he interacts with the other characters — especially Golshifteh Farahani as his wife, his energetic opposite — you get the sense that Driver is slowly contemplating what he hears, formulating an answer and then keeping it to himself. Jarmusch has written Paterson, New Jersey, as a strange world where schoolchildren discuss anarchy and the local multiplex plays Island of Lost Souls on Saturday night (the 1933 film serves as one of his slow-burning punchlines). Driver provides the human touch, standing at the center holding it all together like a cosmic straight man.