One never knows what to expect from indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. I run hot and cold where his films are concerned and wasn’t among the critics who waxed rhapsodic over his last effort, Only Lovers Left Alive. But there is something about the quirky Paterson that speaks to me: it’s the filmmaker’s ability to find something pleasing, possibly beautiful, in the ordinary.
Goodness knows, nothing could be more ordinary than his protagonist’s daily routine. Adam Driver plays a bus driver named Paterson who happens to live in Paterson, New Jersey. (Hardly anyone seems to find this unusual.) He wakes up every morning, without the aid of an alarm clock, kisses his beautiful girlfriend (Goldshifteh Farahani) and ambles off to work at the bus depot. Before his supervisor sends him on his way he writes poetry in a notebook, which Jarmusch shares with us both visually and verbally (in Driver’s voice-over). During the course of the day he catches bits of conversation from his varied passengers, honks a greeting to fellow bus drivers, and has a lunch break in a park where he takes out his pen and writes his poems in the shadow of the Passaic Falls.
One can search for deeper meaning in this and other aspects of Paterson’s routine: walking his bulldog to a neighborhood bar every night where he trades small talk with its owner, played by Barry Shebaka Henley, straightening out the perpetually shifting mailbox in his front yard, repeatedly coming upon twins in the course of his day.
There are unexpected incidents involving Paterson’s loving girlfriend, who has whimsical artistic ambitions, and some of his fellow bar patrons, but nothing terribly dramatic occurs. The only clue to another layer of significance is the fact that among Paterson, New Jersey’s most famous sons (along with Lou Costello) is the poet William Carlos Williams, who titled an epic work after the city. Williams, like our unassuming bus driver, found poetic inspiration in observations of everyday life.
Calling a Jim Jarmusch film understated is redundant, to say the least, but this one benefits from canny use of locations and expert casting. Adam Driver is disarmingly sincere as a simple man who finds a meaningful outlet through poetry. He refuses to share it with anyone, even the woman he loves. He does it to please himself and he has earned the right to the satisfaction it brings: as we can plainly see he toils diligently and without complaint every single day. I like this guy and I like the movie, too.