On the surface not much that happens in the course of Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” could be called exciting. At one point the title character is confronted by a man with a gun at the bar where he stops for a beer while walking his dog each night, but the danger passes quickly, and turns out to have been overblown. At another the bus Paterson drives for a living—in Paterson, New Jersey—breaks down, but nobody is injured and the passengers simply get off to await a replacement bus. Toward the end the family dog Marvin, an inscrutably irascible little beast, does something destructive. But otherwise Jarmusch’s weeklong account of the diurnal routine of Paterson and his exuberant wife is a characteristically sedate affair, moving at a pace that comes across as a nostalgic throwback to a time when movies didn’t have to be frenetic.
Yet while the sort of conventional action one usually encounters in today’s cinematic fare is conspicuous by its absence in “Paterson,” as constructed by Jarmusch the lives of busman Paterson (played, aptly enough, by Adam Driver) and his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) take on a sweetly hypnotic tone despite their apparent ordinariness. Paterson is a creature of absolute habit. He wakes up at the same time each morning, walks to work after breakfast, drives until noon (greeting other passing busses with a honk and listening bemusedly to his passengers’ conversations), eats quietly from his lunchbox, drives again in the afternoon and then walks home to dinner at six, later taking the dog out for his walk and stopping at the bar along the way. Meanwhile Laura stays at home, exercising her creative side by painting clothes, drapes and other household items with intricate black-and-white geometric patterns and baking similarly-decorated cupcakes to sell at the local farmer’s market. She also wants to learn to play the guitar via lessons hawked on a TV commercial, dreaming of becoming a country singer. Occasionally she tries her hand at devising some new recipe for dinner.
Paterson has a creative side as well. He composes poems, which he carefully inscribes in a notebook, working on them as he sits in his bus before starting his daily run, during lunch and after getting home from work. Jarmusch has Driver recite the words as we watch them emerge from his pen on the page, charmingly unpretentious little observational pieces that Laura insists he should keep a second copy of, and perhaps even publish someday. (The poems are actually the work of writer Ron Padgett.) Paterson’s model is another native of the city, William Carlos Williams, but he demonstrates sincere appreciation when a little girl (Sterling Jerins) he meets while walking home recites one of her poems to him, too–and stops to listen attentively when he comes upon a rapper (Cliff Smith, aka Method Man) practicing in a laundromat. And when he’s in the doldrums at the end of the picture, his spirit is roused by the almost magical intervention of a Japanese man (Masatoshi Nagase), a poet himself, who has come to Paterson to drink in Williams’ legacy on his home turf.
Not that one could describe Paterson as reacting in an extrovert fashion to the conversation he has with the man; true, he shows some unwonted energy during that bar confrontation (the fellow with the gun is a regular, a young fellow whose unrequited passion for the girlfriend who’s dumped him causes his outburst), and puzzled concern when his bus breaks down, and he struggles to control himself while eating one of Laura’s concoctions that he obviously doesn’t enjoy, but otherwise there aren’t significant ups and downs to his demeanor. Unlike the other bus driver Ralph Kramden, he lives on an even keel, quietly contented, and Driver’s calm, reflective performance captures the character beautifully. Farahani’s girlish enthusiasm is a nice complement to him, whether she’s anxiously showing off the first notes she’s learned to play on her new guitar or returning in triumph from the sale of her cupcakes. The supporting cast falls easily into Jarmusch’s groove, with Barry Shabaka Henley particularly winning as Doc, the chess-loving barkeep who keeps photos of Paterson notables on his wall. But the primary scene-stealer might just be Nellie, the English bulldog that posthumously won the Palm Dog, the Cannes award for best canine performance. Jarmusch arguably relies on reaction shots of the pooch a bit too much, but he obviously knew a good thing when he saw it.
Cinematographer Frederick Elmes brings a glow to the images that accentuates the film’s nostalgic feel, and Affonso Goncalves’ editing is entirely in synch with Jarmusch’s unhurried style. Drew Kunin’s score is similarly unforced.
One must adsmit that “Paterson” is mannered; one could even criticize it as affected. But even those who have resisted Jarmusch’s idiosyncratic style in the past may find themselves drawn to this charmingly offbeat ode to the lift that a touch of poetry can bring to an ostensibly mundane existence.