The central couple in Paterson share a small life, but it’s abundantly full. You could say the same thing about the movie. This is a modest effort from writer-director Jim Jarmusch, yet one that is so rich in humor and feeling that the film feels as if it might burst.
Adam Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver for the city of Paterson, N.J., whose life is one of humble routine. He wakes each morning with Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), heading to work while she stays home to pursue her latest creative endeavor (cupcakes, country guitar, painting the shower curtain). When Paterson returns home, they share a dinner, then he walks her English bulldog Marvin—stopping at a nearby bar for a single beer—before calling it a night. In between these daily activities, Paterson works on the poems we hear him reciting in his head and see scribbled across the screen. The only real point of conflict in their life, it seems, is Marvin, who grunts askance at Paterson from across the small living room.
Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Only Lovers Left Alive) practiced cinematic quirk before it became a pejorative; here, the quirkiness is so relaxed as to almost register as naturalism. (Farahani’s Laura is something like a chill pixie dream girl.) Paterson and Laura are so at ease in their relative oddness that even the hokier touches—like the fact that Paterson doesn’t own a mobile phone—feel less like cliched character traits than genuine choices made by these particular people.
The real chemistry in the movie is between Driver and the dog.
As for the poetry, I’m not astute enough to say whether or not it’s great. (Written by contemporary poet Ron Padgett, most of it is in the imagist vein of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say,” which is quoted here.) I do know that it’s aided by the way Driver reads it in voiceover, capturing the mental pauses and rushes forward that characterize the pace of writing. Among other things, Paterson is an observant portrait of the creative process.
Driver’s reading is just one element of his exquisite performance. Soft-spoken and not easily roused, all of Paterson’s feelings are conveyed by tiny things: where he looks, when he smiles, how loudly he laughs. As much tender affection that Paterson shares with Laura, the real chemistry in the movie is between Driver and the dog, which allows for a hilarious sight gag and culminates in this quiet confession on Paterson’s part: “I don’t like you, Marvin.”
These should all be minor pleasures, so why does Paterson feel so full? Perhaps it’s because the movie exudes something that alludes so many of us: contentment. Spending time with these two is beguiling because they know how to enjoy the relatively little that they have. While Laura occasionally speaks of fame and riches, Paterson is reluctant to even make photocopies of his journal as a backup. And to be fair to Laura, in her mind “fame and riches” mean a good day of cupcake sales at the local farmer’s market. Taken together, Paterson’s poems evoke a similar sensibility. In this wonderful little world, at once unremarkable and impossible, all that needs to be said can be said simply by describing the movement of a bus down the street or the particular hue of an Ohio Blue Tip match. This is life in glorious miniature.