"Paterson" is a likable but very minor film about what is, for some, a major subject. The major subject is American poetry and the love it inspires – especially love for the great poetry of William Carlos Williams, whose influence suffuses the whole film.
Paterson is the name of the bus driver at the center of the film. He's played by Adam Driver, an actor whose shaggy benevolence helps the film to be as likable as it is. Golshifteh Farahani plays his wife Laura.
Paterson also is the name of the New Jersey city where the film takes place. And it was the name of the longest poem of William Carlos Williams' life, whose composition took 12 years, from 1946 to 1958. Williams was one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century, a bulwark against the academicism of Pound and Eliot and a huge influence for many, including Robert Creeley and other poets (for instance, Allen Ginsberg who did, in fact, come from Paterson).
Let me confess as quickly as possible that "Paterson" was written and directed by one of my two least favorite American filmmakers, Jim Jarmusch (the other is Todd Solondz). Among the many unpleasant side effects of the decline of everyday behavioral courtesies of the past 70 years is the rise of the superior smirk as a fixture of modern social and business life from its former, and thoroughly justified, position as unforgivable rudeness.
The stylistic smirk that accompanies too many Jarmusch films and which combines with contemptuously slow tempos has frankly been such that I've been tempted to flee them into the night midway through. When nothing has been at stake – no review required of me – I've been delighted to leave them half sampled.
When, for instance, he and Johnny Depp made "Dead Man" it seemed that so much superior smirking was going on in its making that I'm astonished they let it be seen by audiences of certifiable, card-carrying human beings. I found his first film almost unendurable – "Stranger Than Paradise" – but its historic importance among independent films has caused it to be a permanent member of the National Film Registry.
It's important I tell you how many people disagree with me – who say, for instance, that "Coffee and Cigarettes" is hilarious and not just because Tom Waits is in it.
In all fairness, you need to know mine is a minority view. In addition, Jarmusch seems to be, personally, well-liked. He's a genial film and pop music intellectual, a Boho New Yorker of good standing with the CBGB credentials to prove it.
There's even a Jarmusch film I admire with no qualifications whatsoever – "Broken Flowers," an endearing, wistful film in which Bill Murray quite lovably began to welcome late middle age.
I frankly dreaded "Paterson" for its opportunities to allow Jarmusch to slather his elitist smart-aleck smirk over everything in sight, including the poetry and influence of William Carlos Williams which doesn't begin to deserve it. (By the way, thanks to the heroic collating efforts of Neil Baldwin and others, the State University at Buffalo poetry room is some of the greatest collections of Williams manuscripts and memorabilia, including his writing desk, anywhere.)
To Jarmusch's credit, he resists smirk opportunities throughout most of the film. There is no condescension toward his city bus driver who writes poetry in a private notebook. The poetry is not at all bad for a simple reason – it was written by Ron Padgett, a very good poet and Jarmusch friend.
I worried when Paterson's wife ordered a guitar in the mail and planned to become a country and western singer. Here comes the superior Jarmusch smirk, I thought. He's going to plaster her for her banality and lack of talent. And, in truth, he seemed briefly tempted to do just that. But actress Golshifteh Farahani is too good and won't let him.
So we follow Paterson's regimented regular life outside the bus and the poems written on the fly – the time he wakes up almost every morning, the bar he goes to nightly for one beer, no more, the dog he parks outside in the same spot, the barroom inhabitants to which his benevolence adds no small life support.
Williams was famous for the magnificence of his minimalist condensations of the everyday in life. Along with being a poet he was a pediatrician and GP in New Jersey (head of a hospital pediatric department, in fact). No poet has ever been less of an ivory tower dweller than William Carlos Williams. Life, in all forms, was his expertise.
It's nice to know that Jarmusch – who long ago thought of becoming a poet--has been so influenced by Williams that he knocks off the smirking and actually seems to believe that Williams might influence the poetry of a bus driver every bit as much as he might have influenced, say, Robert Creeley.
Nice of Jarmusch to keep a straight face most of the time in "Paterson" – especially at the end. He may yet warm up to the rest of us.
Two and a half stars out of four
Starring: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Faragani, Nellie
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Running time: 118 minutes
Rated: R for language.
The lowdown: A Paterson, N.J. bus driver lives a regimented life but writes poetry in a notebook.