Paterson has many elements I love to find in a film: a commitment to exploring mundane, everyday life, and dry humor.
Paterson has tremendously little plot. Jim Jarmusch’s previous film Only Lovers Left Alive is similarly plotless. The filmmaker clearly favors character over narrative. However where Only Lovers’ plotlessness is deliberately slow, Paterson proceeds at a steady, compelling pace. Even with little happening on screen, Paterson is light on its feet. Banality is difficult to pull off without becoming disinteresting. Although not a comedy, there are chuckles at every turn, and the each slice of everyday life offers insight. It’s clever enough to be engaging, but not so clever it ceases to be mundane. Other films like this (Richard Linklater comes to mind) work so hard to find profound meaning in the ordinary they feel less authentically ordinary. Paterson strikes the perfect balance in the boring to whimsy ratio.
Paterson (Adam Driver) is a regular-joe bus driver and hobbyist poet, who lives and works Paterson, New Jersey. The film treats us to a week in his life. He drives the bus, he jots down some poetry, he comes home, he walks the dog, has a beer at the bar, goes to bed, then wakes up to do it all over again.
His odd duck girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) stays home and decorates their house obsessively with black and white stripes and polka dots. She longs to be a famous country singer, though she has no musical ability. She’s not tragically bad, just unskilled. It’s a lofty ambition for someone who’s never touched a guitar before.
Paterson is a prolific poet. He is observant and insightful. Unlike Laura he doesn’t want to be famous. He gathers his poems in a “secret notebook” with no intention to publish. Paterson and Laura don’t seem like an obvious pairing. They have different ambitions, temperaments, and perspectives on the world. Their differences almost seem to set up tension in the audience (or at least in me) more so than it does in the characters. I expected something to go wrong between them. Nothing does. They do seem to genuinely like one another. Paterson is supportive of Laura’s musical ambitions and budding cupcake business, Laura adores his poetry. It’s just not as passionate a romance as we’re used to seeing in movies.
If Paterson were any other movie, it would be about a regular-joe stuck in a rut, who gets sick of his eccentric girlfriend and dead-end job, and builds up the moxie to take action and change his life. Or perhaps: a regular joe stuck in a rut, who grows sick of it all but can’t muster the strength to take action and change anything, and finds himself in the same dissatisfying spot he started. The first is a hero’s tale, the second a tragedy. Paterson is neither. The protagonist goes along with his routine, but he’s not dissatisfied with it. Some things are difficult, but he accepts them. He rolls with it. Yeah, he has weaknesses. He’s a bit of a pushover. But not always, and not even most of the time. He’s not the heroic figure who changes his life for the better because he doesn’t need to, and because he wouldn’t. He’s not that kinda guy. He isn’t trapped in his boring life, because that’s not how he perceives his life. He isn’t complicit, he’s content.
Paterson is a film about okay-ness, about ordinariness. It doesn’t talk down to that. Every night when Paterson arrives at the bar he frequents he ties off his french bull dog’s leash outside. Early in the film a convertible full of strangers pulls up next to Paterson to let him know that his dog is very expensive and at risk of being dognapped. Paterson shrugs it off and goes about doing what he always does. The dog never gets stolen. The dangerous clutches of routine don’t gobble Paterson’s soul. Paterson’s ways do bite him in the butt sometimes, but they aren’t ever a punishment. He doesn’t want a cell phone, which leaves him in a tough spot when his bus breaks down in an area with no payphones. A child offers her smartphone, problem solved. The film doesn’t glorify ordinariness, it just doesn’t vilify it. Problems arise, but they are solved too. It’s okay to be fine, it’s fine to be ordinary, and holy cow most of us are just that. Being tremendous is not the most important thing in the world. It’s a refreshing message.
I give Paterson 9 verses of poetry out of 10.