HOLLYWOOD—The everyday is a popular subject right now. I define this as that particular type of film, story, etc., that addresses the almost imperceptible, unremarkable moments and feelings that we constantly experience. Often times these stories takes place in everyday places with everyday people. Since they address things that are universally familiar it can be hard for them to be insightful, and since they lack a lot of tension and a big climax they can sometimes be boring. “Paterson” is precisely this kind of story. Although it is slow and far from unique it’s no doubt an interesting and subtle film.
The story follows bus driver/poet Paterson (Adam Driver) of Paterson, New Jersey through several rounds of his daily routine. We see him interact primarily with his beloved wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and his friend and bartender Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley). Most of the plot centers on Paterson’s interactions and observations as well as his creative process.
Roles like these are deceptively difficult. Driver and Farahani have to pack a lot of emotion into very understated scenes. You’re not going to see grand romantic gestures or any such epic drama here. However, moments like Paterson working hard in his notebooks and waking up lovingly with Laura are both believable and beautiful. A terrific job was required of this cast to make the film work and they delivered.
Director Jim Jarmusch did a good job. There were moments that were a bit much. I’m not so sure we needed the overlay of falling water with Paterson’s voiceover, but it’s a small complaint.
His directing was good, but his screenplay was great. Literature enthusiasts will appreciate it immensely. Smart references to everyone from Frank O’Hara to William Carlos Williams dot the narrative. This feels neither forced nor pedantic ala Woody Allen in “Midnight in Paris.” Instead it fits perfectly with Paterson’s personality and interests. We get the impression that these poets are never far from his mind, and this informs his observations. It’s attention to detail that speaks highly of Jarmusch’s abilities as a screenwriter.
There are lots of nice surprises sprinkled throughout. Some well-timed, deadpan humor can be found.
In a very intelligent move Jarmusch makes the connection between different kinds of art. A scene where Paterson walks up on a rapper (Method Man) working on new material in a laundromat is fantastic. It’s one of the best moments that shows solidarity between Paterson and the other creative people he encounters. I once took a class from a graduate student where she explained that rap is a modern form of poetry with more in common with older forms than we think. As it turns out poems were often sung in the past. I found this an interesting bit of cultural history, and I’m happy that Jarmusch made the reference.
There was a scene that could be interpreted as having an orientalist tinge, so I feel it must be discussed. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a moment where a Japanese poet gives Paterson a gift that feels just a bit like fetishizing. I think Jarmusch did this to highlight the universal appeal of poetry by showing the William Carlos Williams book the Japanese poet is reading as written in both Kanji and English. Perhaps this was done because Japanese is a very different language from English, and this showed the cross-cultural appeal more starkly. This might be the case, but it still had the bad taste of Hollywood’s less charming racial tropes. It’s a flaw to be sure.
Overall, “Paterson” is an interesting piece of cinema. Jarmusch explores subjects that would be familiar to Emily Dickinson (directly referenced in the film). The everyday tragedies and joys of life, existential search for meaning, and persistence and love in the face of it are all given an interesting treatment here. Despite the slow pace, it has many moments worthy of inspection. It’ll probably appeal more to literature aficionados, cinephiles, and art-house fans more than anything, but that doesn’t take away from the objective fact that it’s a good film.