Poetry shows us how just a few words can be full of meaning. "Paterson," a tone poem of a film, goes about its business the same way, with simple gestures that contain a lot and work on many levels.
This smile-inducing charmer, about a young New Jersey bus driver who is an unpublished poet, may be the most enchanting tourism ad for the Garden State ever made. It's certainly the best film yet from eccentric indie icon Jim Jarmusch, giving us a gentle entertainment about the intersection between art and everyday life. Most Hollywood comedies are vulgar, dumb and not very funny. With long, calm takes and minimal fanfare, this is clever, sweet and delightfully wise. It proves you don't need to do a lot to say a lot.
The tone is a lovely blend of workaday realism and ironic daydream. Adam Driver plays the driver. He's named Paterson and Paterson, N.J., (home to poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg) is his route and his home. Traveling across Paterson with Paterson, we time and again encounter new sets of twins. There's a metaphysical rhyming going on here, recognizing the quiet everyday magic in daily existence, which has far more depth than we realize.
Paterson (the man) has a life that is agreeably mundane. Every day is essentially the same — rhyming again. There's cereal and coffee in the morning with his warm and tender sweetheart Laura (Golshifteh Farahani, the magnetic Iranian star of "About Elly" and the upcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel). There's a lovingly prepared sandwich in Paterson's lunch box each day, hours of slow and careful circles around his route, and small talk with Laura after work. Before bed he walks Marvin, their English bulldog, over to the same neighborhood bar for a single beer and a chat with the counterman, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley).
His life ticks ahead like quiet clockwork, with a bit of time daily for mentally composing a new verse. While his poems don't reach rarefied artistic territory — Paterson is an understated, low-key guy — they illustrate some invisible essence. Like Williams producing classic poetry from a modest opening like "I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox," Paterson can observe the nature of things in a box of kitchen matches.
The film is full of small, flawless scenes. Driver's character is so wonderfully attentive that he sharpens the way we view the film, like Sherlock with a magnifying glass. He stops his nightly dog walk to listen to a one-man poetry slam in a laundromat; look carefully or you might miss that it's a Method Man cameo. Driver listens to a young poet (Sterling Jerins) as she reads to him from her "secret notebook," one artist respecting another. Even the relationship between Paterson and crusty Marvin becomes goofier scene by scene, and deeper in a weird way. It is a sight to behold.
Little things can mean a lot. Jarmusch, who can find visual humor through a precise edit, never needs his cast to oversell. Dear, modest Laura is positively percolating with creative talent. She creates her own hip, handcrafted wardrobe, paints their average home's stylish interior and frosts her outstanding muffins, all with inventive black and white patterns. Those two routine colors become beautiful in her artistic hands.
She's hoping to acquire a special guitar they can't quite afford to launch a musical career, which might not be as absurd as it sounds. And she knows that Paterson's poems would do well, if only he'd publish them. She feels that he could — should — be remembered as a poet, not just a bus driver. Laura believes, just as Jarmusch does, that there are wonders just below the surface of things, and it matters.
I liked this movie very much and admired it even more.