Movie Review: Paterson (2016)
You assume going in that the title character of “Paterson” is a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver: “Girls,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”); but the title character could also be where he lives, Paterson, New Jersey, a working class town that is the home, or at least a home, to American poets: William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Costello.
The movie, a week in the life of the bus driver, is a veritable love letter to the city. Every ride on every bus is a history lesson into one of its famous residents. On Monday two black kids talk “Hurricane” Carter. On Wednesday two white kids (the now-teenage stars of “Moonrise Kingdom”) discuss Italian anarchist and assassin Gaetano Bresci. There are clippings of other famous residents behind the bar at the little dive Paterson goes to every night, and it seems our bus driver can't sit anywhere in town without someone wanting to talk poetry with him. Is this a Paterson, N.J. thing? Because it's not an American thing. Not in my lifetime.
Paterson, the character, is oddly disconnected. So is Paterson, N.J., seemingly, from the worst aspects of modern life. There are no addicts on these buses, no homeless, no one who raises their voice. Everyone's so fucking polite. One day the bus breaks down, and the kids on it are docile and helpful, and the old folks on it are worried but reassured. Two guys talk girls, but pathetically rather than predatorily. They tell stories of “hot girls” who were interested in them and how, well, they just didn’t follow through. The guys didn't. They had work the next day or some such. They had excuses.
No one really follows through in this movie. It’s oddly sexless. It’s an old man’s rhythm, and I guess writer-director Jim Jarmusch is an old man now.
The Jarmusch Variations
Here’s Jarmusch on “Paterson”:
I wanted to make this little structure to be a metaphor for life: that every day is a variation on the day before or the day coming up. They’re just variations.
Well, he did that. Every day, Paterson wakes up between 6 and 6:30 next to his hot, enthusastic, often annoying girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), kisses her, then trundles down for coffee and Cheerios and to think his thoughts, which wind up as poems in his secret notebook. Then it’s off to work. It’s early autumn, jacket weather, but always pleasant; no rain, wind, or blinding sun. At the terminal, Donnie (Rizwan Manji), Paterson’s colleague and/or supervisor, wakes him from his poetry reverie with complaints about his own life; then it’s the drive. Evenings, Paterson returns to their small house with the crooked mailbox out front to hear Laura’s latest enthusiasms: what she’s painted black and white; how she wants to make a mint selling cupcakes; how she wants to learn guitar and become a great country singer in Nashville like Tammy Wynnette. After dinner, he takes their English bulldog Marvin for a walk and always winds up at the local bar, where Paterson nurses a beer, chats with the bar’s owner, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), and where we get another installment of Everett’s pathetic attempts to win over Marie (William Jackson Harper, Chasten Harmon, respectively).
At times, I liked the day-to-dayness of it, its appreciation of small things and moments and just being, but more often I felt trapped. The movie is insular to the point of suffocation. Does Paterson have other friends? Does Laura? How did they meet? He was in the military once—we see the photo. So is this mundaneness designed to protect him from the drama he experienced there? I wondered if Paterson felt as suffocated by his life as I did; if he was going to snap. Nope. It’s Everett who snaps. He pulls a gun on Marie, propeling Paterson into action, into saving the day. But the gun is a prop, Everett’s pulled it before, and Paterson’s heroism is completely unnecessary. It’s a neutered moment in a movie—a life—full of them.
Half an hour in, I figured if anything was going to “happen” it would be one of two things:
- Early on, a local tells Paterson that his dog is an expensive breed, the type that gets dognapped, so be careful. Paterson isn’t, leaving Marvin tied up outside the bar. So maybe Marvin gets napped?
- Laura pleads with Paterson to make copies of his poems before something happens to them and they’re lost forever. So maybe something happens to the poems?
It’s the latter. And it’s telegraphed.
On Saturday, Laura’s cupcakes are a hit at the farmers market, so they celebrate by going out to dinner and then to a 1932 horror film, “Island of Lost Souls,” one of the first cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” But Paterson leaves his notebook on the couch and when they return it’s chewed to bits by Marvin. Sunday, and the rest of the movie, is how Paterson deals with this loss. He finds that it matters to him. Serendipitously, at the Great Falls of Paterson, his favorite place, he runs into a Japanese tourist, a poetry lover who has traveled to Paterson because of Williams’ five-book series, “Paterson”; and after a slow conversation, the tourist gives Paterson a new blank notebook. Alone again, Paterson writes a new poem about the musical lyric “Or would you rather be a fish?” I actually liked that poem. It's the only poem of his that I liked.
And that’s pretty much it.
As you can tell, the movie didn’t do much for me. That Japanese tourist, despite carrying a book of translated poetry, says, “Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on,” and that’s what “Paterson” felt like to me. Its main character seems to be in a fugue state, and the movie puts us into a kind of fugue state, too. It’s not just disconnected; there seems to be a real fear of connection in it. It’s almost a horror film: an island of lost souls.