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Film review: 'Paterson' - A step into poetry with Jim Jarmusch


Jim Jarmusch has served up another one of his lugubrious tales set in Paterson, New Jersey, with a poet-bus driver as his protagonist, also oddly named Paterson. Adam Driver (of Star Wars fame) plays the nondescript bus driver and we get to follow him in his daily activities for a period of one week.

Paterson lives with his wife Laura (magisterially played by Iranian born Golshifteh Farahani) in a small house in Paterson. His daily routine includes driving a NJ Transit bus, walking his pit bull Marvin, hanging out at a local pub and writing poetry in a notebook (the words of the poems appear on screen, with scenes from Paterson–particularly some beautiful foliage, appearing in the background).

The problem with the story is that Jarmusch’s protagonist is basically a wet fish—Driver can do little with a script that features a man of no passion who walks about like an automaton. One wonders why his wife is attracted to such a fellow—can it just be because he writes poetry that she likes and considers him “sensitive”? Without the poetry (real stuff written by Ron Padgett and dry as its narrator), Paterson seems like the type of guy who would bore anyone to death.Interspersed with Paterson are the characters he runs into throughout the film. They include a co-worker bedeviled by domestic issues; a bartender who enjoys playing chess with himself; a young girl, also a poet who has a mutual affinity with Paterson for Emily Dickinson; a not too confident rapper in a laundromat whom Paterson tries to encourage; a teenager on Paterson’s bus who discusses Gaetano Bresci, an anarchist from Paterson who traveled to Italy and assassinated King Umberto I at the turn of the century; and a Japanese tourist who has a great fondness for the poet William Carlos Williams, another long-term Paterson resident.

There is little sense of evil in Jarmusch’s world–which almost gives Paterson (the film) a fable-like quality. Paterson (the bus driver) at one point is stopped by a bunch of gang bangers in a convertible as he walks Marvin down the street, and is benignly warned about dog snatchers in the neighbourhood.

The closest Paterson comes to menace is when a love-sick patron at the bar flips out a toy gun after being rejected by a former girlfriend for the umpteenth time. The scene has a cartoonish ending as the bartender declines to dial 911 and allows the jilted offender to walk out of the bar, scot-free.What saves Paterson from complete disaster is the wonderful performance of Golshifteh Farahani as Paterson’s supportive wife, Laura. She exudes beauty inside and out, providing an optimistic contrast to Driver’s soporific poet. Laura is a fashionista of the highest order, designing intricate geometric patterns for her curtains, dresses and even for batches of cupcakes she prepares for a local flea market. She even orders a guitar through the mail and is determined to fulfill her dream as a country artist like Patsy Cline or Tammy Wynette.

Warning – Spoilers ahead…

After Paterson agrees to copy all his poems at his wife’s behest, his “career” as a poet is seemingly cut short after the film’s true antagonist, Marvin the pit bull, chomps his “secret notebook” to pieces, before Paterson makes good on his promise to his wife.

For the first time in the film, Laura becomes upset, and orders Marvin into the garage as punishment (Passive Paterson lets him back into the house). Nonetheless, Paterson resumes writing poetry at film’s end and presumably Paterson’s life of equilibrium has been re-established.

You might appreciate some of the quirky characters here and certainly Farahani’s performance, but the poet bus-driver protagonist–and his poetry–proves to be a major disappointment.