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Paterson – review from Lee Adams

Not everyone gets to have their dream job. Those who don’t often keep little passion projects on the go whenever they can, to make something special out of the day and keep the hope alive. You’re reading one of mine – I love to write about movies, and one day I’d like to make a living from it. In Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Paterson (Adam Driver) is a poet, and fervently jots down his own poems in a notebook whenever he gets a moment. For the rest of the day he is a dutiful bus driver in his hometown of Paterson, N.J., overhearing the conversations of his passengers and watching city life through the windshield of his bus.

I have an ambivalent attitude towards Jarmusch’s films – although I like more than I dislike, there are some that I hate with such ferocity that it colours my approach to any new film from him. With this in mind, I thought Paterson sounded insufferable – Adam Driver is a bus driver-poet – how hip, how Jarmuschian! However, I identified with the lead character instantly and found the film to be a constant delight, and it may be Jarmusch’s most sincere, heartfelt and least self-satisfied film to date.

Paterson lives a life of comfortable monotony with his gorgeous arty wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and her jealous English bulldog Marvin (brilliantly played by a female dog, Nellie, who posthumously won the “Palm Dog” at Cannes last year for her performance). Each day Paterson rises around six, kisses his wife goodbye, eats a bowl of Cheerios, then walks to work. While he’s driving the city’s buses, Laura stays at home at decorates the house with her striking symmetrical designs and cooks up wacky recipes for dinner. She loves his poetry and keeps pushing him to make copies and get them published; he seems less sure of his ability and says he’ll get round to it. Each evening he takes Marvin for a walk and stops in at his local bar for one beer, and chat quietly with the bar owner Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) and some of the other regulars.

Each day starts the same, and is announced by a caption on the screen – “Monday”. A little like The Shining, but far less scary. Jarmusch gently attunes us to the rhythms of Paterson’s day so that later when something happens out of the norm, it registers almost as drama. I say almost, because Paterson is laid back even by Jarmusch’s usually horizontal standards – when Paterson woke up about twenty minutes later than usual, I sat forward in my chair. One evening while he’s on the way to the bar, a carload of gangbangers pulls up to the curb and warns him that a pedigree dog like Marvin could get him “dog-jacked”. This is the part in a more traditional movie where the main character gets threatened, beaten up, or shot. Not in Paterson – they’re just being neighbourly.

Similarly, Jarmusch doesn’t feel the need to make Paterson’s poetry a plot device just to create drama. He doesn’t need to win a poetry slam to save the local orphanage; his marriage or general domestic bliss doesn’t depend on him becoming a success. Poetry is simply something that Paterson is naturally driven to do.

Jarmusch has built up a colourful coterie of characters over the years, as his films are populated with hipster vampires, mystic cowboys, samurai hitmen, charming crooks and rockstars shooting the breeze over coffee and cigarettes. Yet with Paterson he harks back to his earliest works, in particular Stranger than Paradise, portraying people in low income brackets living in broken down or forgotten parts of town. He’s casually apolitical about it, without the anger you’d normally associate with directors focussing on the lower classes, and he glosses over the socio-economic stresses that come with being broke and living in a crappy neighbourhood. Paterson is a regular guy living a recognisably regular life, and Jarmusch finds comfort there. I get it – sometimes I look back on when I was jobless, broke, and had no prospects with a tinge of nostalgia. Life was somehow simpler then when I had no place to go and nothing to do.

Apart from Nellie the dog, Driver is the obvious acting draw, thoroughly inhabiting the role of Paterson. He wears his peculiar features and lanky frame like a set of old baggy clothes someone uncomfortable with their body throws on to disguise themselves. I don’t know much about poetry, but Paterson’s words are clearly supposed to represent the character. They’re plainspoken and modest but capable of catching flame when the mood strikes, like the first poem we see and hear him composing, and ode to his favourite brand of matches. The words sound right in Driver’s mouth, and his readings are quite moving. The performance may be a little too low-key to attract much attention come the Oscars, though.

Like it’s namesake hero, Paterson is dramatically un-dramatic, but has a fervour and determination burning quietly within. As a gentle accumulation of micro-pleasures, setbacks and victories, it’s a tranquil celebration of the creative spirit.