This Is Just to Say: Paterson‘s Not Great


Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Opens December 28

Jim Jarmusch’s latest—and second of the year, following his Stooges doc Gimme Danger—finds the director’s distinctive silver-white shock in danger of becoming age-appropriate: seldom have the end credits rolled on one of his pictures with so little of its mystery left intact. To recap: the title Paterson is also the film’s setting, the city in New Jersey; the name of its principal character, a poet/bus-driver played by Adam Driver; and a reference to one of its own creative ancestors, the epic poem by William Carlos Williams, himself a son of New Jersey and, not by chance, our protagonist’s literary hero.

Jarmusch structures the film as a week’s worth of daily routines, each beginning with Paterson (no last name given) lying in repose next to wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), waking to the morning sunlight on his face. While driving his New Jersey Transit bus he communes with his namesake-hometown, drinking in its sights and sounds, musing on snippets of overheard conversation and composing plainspoken verse in his head, to be written out longhand in a private notebook. On returning home he eats dinner with Laura, then takes their bulldog Marvin out for his nightly walk, stopping in at his local for a beer on the way. Repeat.

It takes close to three-quarters of the film’s running time to reveal any kind of dramatic stakes; they eventually resolve themselves, rather too neatly, into a parable about the relationship of art to the everyday, how daily ephemera accrete, stalactite-like, into our imagination of a self. Frederick Elmes’s sun-dappled photography and a typically Jarmuschish gallery of oddball interlocutors render Paterson a lovely place to while away a couple hours, which might be part of the problem.

For all its earnest, intermittently successful efforts to find wonder in the mundane and quotidian, the film is too neatly orchestrated, assembled from handy preoccupations rather than harvested doc-style from unfenced reality. Paterson’s poems—actually, works by New York School exponent Ron Padgett, repurposed for the occasion—shoulder too much of the burden of bringing out his inner life onscreen. Keeping his distance from the granular details of psychic conflict, Jarmusch’s domestic idyll veers distressingly close to some kind of working-class virtue fanfic.

Paterson is no more or less transparently schematic than the director’s best pictures, but for observing the accumulation of minutiae into consciousness, it’s a self-defeating approach. Not for the first time, the rigid control of his filmmaking reduces an attempt at cosmic mysticism to mere literary elaboration. It’s worth noting that this isn’t Driver’s first role for an older director contemplating the intertwining of life and art: but while Frances Ha and Inside Llewyn Davis found their respective directors confronting the energy of a younger generation, Paterson is an oddly conservative portrait of a young artist.


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