Neither good nor bad, exactly — but with more reaction-shot cutaways to a pet dog than would have been countenanced even on a 1950s sitcom — Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a singular ode to the ordered life, domestic harmony and poetry as something worth living for. Unassuming, idiosyncratic and set in the run-down eponymous New Jersey city that has produced more than its share of noted personalities, this is a mild-mannered, almost startlingly undramatic work that offers discreet pleasures to longtime fans of the New York indie-scene veteran, who can always be counted on to go his own way. The presence of Adam Driver at the top of the cast, albeit playing a notably unsexy and ordinary bus driver, may not boost what will surely be a modest theatrical box-office take, but does give Amazon a good marquee name for home-viewing purposes.
Dominantly a husband-and-wife two-hander, as was Jarmusch’s last film, Only Lovers Left Alive (also a Cannes competition entry as well as one of his best and most personal works), Paterson is almost suffocating in its presentation of cocoon-like marital bliss. Set over the course of one week during a stretch of idyllic early autumn weather (the tone would have been entirely different had the story unfolded in winter or summer), the story, such as it is, is divided into daily chapters that begin with the couple lying picturesquely close in bed, Paterson (Driver) rising up without an alarm clock at 6:12 a.m. and Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) murmuring loving words and/or telling him her waking dream.
As is increasingly the case with the writer-director, there is much fetishizing of vintage household objects — the beauty of Ohio Blue Tip matchboxes and the quality of the enclosed product get major play here — and the couple’s life together is presented as domestic simplicity incarnate. Paterson (yes, he has the same name as the town he lives in) walks to work from their modest house, drives a city bus, takes his midday meal from his lunchbox and stops every night for one beer at a neighborhood bar while walking Marvin the dog, while Laura stays at home and pursues her various creative projects, which include becoming a country-western singer, creating fashionable cupcakes and putting black-and-white circular designs on her wardrobe and as many other household items as possible.
Paterson would be entirely ordinary indeed except for the fact that he can use bits and pieces of his repetitive days to write poetry: He jots in the driver’s seat before beginning his rounds, goes through verses in his head while driving and can do more during lunch. His creations (written by poet Ron Padgett) largely draw on daily life, contain alternately casual and pointed observations and avoid rhyme; they don’t impress as particularly notable, but aren’t entirely negligible either.
The point is that his poetry sustains Paterson, defines him, even. He’s not at all pretentious about it, doesn’t seem motivated to publish and has none of the outward trappings of an “artist,” although Laura urges him to make a copy of his work, lest something happen to his notebook.
A quiet, old-school place with a largely black clientele, the corner saloon plays host to small personal dramas, most notably one of unrequited love that climaxes with a drawn-gun incident in which the normally passive Paterson gets involved. When he goes home, his wife is always there waiting, and the most irritating aspect of the pic is Laura’s oppressively fawning, effusive and sincere attitude; it’s one thing to try to look on the bright side, but this woman’s single-minded cheerfulness can get downright depressing. One does wonder why she has no outside friends or job, as well as how she and her husband get by on a bus driver’s salary.
Paterson eventually experiences a couple of modest traumas that turn the tone of the film a bit and, although they hardly rate as dramatic climaxes, two very fine late-on scenes deepen the sense of the man’s feeling for and commitment to poetry. In one, he happens upon a young girl, perhaps 10 years old, who reads to him a poem she’s written, while in the other, a Japanese visitor strikes up a conversation. The man (Masatoshi Nagase) is a scholar and a poet himself who is carrying a Japanese translation of William Carlos Williams’ epic “Paterson” (yes, the poet was another Jersey product) and unknowingly provides Paterson with a little spark he may be needing.
The performances throughout are straightforward, unassuming and unmannered, while the visuals, apart from Laura’s ever-expanding collection of domestic designs, are unfussy and less stylized that is often the case with the director.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production: Inkjet Productions
Cast: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley, Chasten Harmon, William Jackson Harper, Masatoshi Nagase
Director-screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch
Producers: Joshua Astrachan, Carter Logan
Executive producers: Oliver Simon, Daniel Baur, Ronald M. Bozman
Director of photography: Frederick Elmes
Production designer: Mark Friedberg
Costume designer: Catherine George
Editor: Affonso Goncalves
Music: Drew Kunin,
Casting: Meghan Rafferty
Not rated, 116 minutes