Movie Review: Paterson

Jim Jarmusch takes the audience to spend a week with a poetic bus driver

Directed by Jim Jarmusch
With Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley, Cliff Smith, Chasten Harmon, William Jackson Harper, Masatoshi Nagase

Cult director Jim Jarmusch generally makes rather offbeat dramas filled with all sorts of cultural references and bit of a dry, smirking sense of humor.

He goes for a bit of a change of pace in his latest film called Paterson, named for both the city in New Jersey and its main character. The film celebrates poets and poetry, as well as the urban landscapes that have fallen into decline but are still home to millions of people.

One main idea behind the film is that William Carlos Williams wrote an epic five-volume poem called Paterson, looking at the city as a microcosm of society in the 1940s and '50s. More than half a century has passed since the last volume was published. Jim Jarmusch takes us back to same locale and again uses it as a way to make observations and comments about contemporary society.

Jim Jarmusch often uses very formal structures for his narratives, and in this film his main character through one typical week.

The character named Paterson (played by Adam Driver) is a city bus driver who writes poems in his off moments, often sitting with a view of a waterfall that Williams also wrote about. The poems are short observations about some common object like a box of matches or some simple incident.

He lives a routine-filled life with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and her dog, Marvin. The dog and the poet do not get along so well, but he takes the him along to the local bar every night when he has his beer.

Laura also has her quirks. She wears black-and-white almost exclusively, and decorates in the same scheme. The two have settled into life together. Paterson tolerates her oddities, being complimentary if a bit unenthusiastic at some of her ideas. On the other hand, she really encourages him with his poetry and urges him to try to do something with it.

His passive nature comes from him being an observer, interacting with words rather than people. The poems he is working on are often repeated as he polishes them. At first they seem a bit superficial, but as the film continues they show a hidden depth.

Little ongoing dramas fill Paterson's week. He and the local bartender, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), have ongoing conversations about the city and the people who made it great. Both look to the bright side of the city, even though it has fallen into hard economic ties.

A situation with a young woman who frequents the bar and a man in whom she is not interested eventually escalates into the film's one almost action scene. It is sad and moving in the end, rather than violent in the classical sense.

Adam Driver has a hard role. He is very laid back, not getting upset over anything even though a series of things go terribly wrong. At the same time he has to create a compelling character to draw the audience in. Golshifteh Farahani is also caught having to navigate a fine line between being charmingly eccentric and a bit of a parody of quirky characters. She is on the verge of going too far, but always comes back to being sympathetic.

Plot is not the film's strong point. It works like a poem, compounding images and ideas but not driving at a linear narrative, though there is a definite and very poetic conclusion stemming from the earlier events.

Jarmusch adds a lot of little quick bits to bring color to the proceedings. Every day, Paterson has to fix his mailbox. Late in the film in a short but funny moment shows the audience why it is tilted every day.

After more and more CGI-filled spectaculars, a film like Paterson is a true oddity. Slice-of-life dramas were a staple of cinema until the advent of Star Wars in 1977 and the Heaven's Gate disaster in 1980 brought the character-driven New American Cinema movement to an end, in favor of action spectacles and formulaic genre pieces.

If you are willing to settle into the loosely related series of events that Paterson offers, it creates a touchingly humorous vision of urban America that is quite unlike other depictions of contemporary life seen in cinema.

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