Adam Driver in Paterson review

Note: With Paterson in limited release starting today, we’re re-running our review from the New York Film Festival.

In the past five years, Adam Driver has gone from total obscurity to total ubiquity. Girls was the show that launched him to fame, but his work since then has proven that his breakout role was no fluke. There’s a reason he’s being courted by everyone from the blockbuster magicians at Disney (for Star Wars: The Force Awakens) to top-level directors like Noah Baumbach, the Coens, and Jeff Nichols. With Paterson, he checks another acclaimed auteur off his to-do list, Jim Jarmusch, and the results of their meeting prove as wonderfully idiosyncratic as they are. 

Paterson chronicles a week in the life of Paterson (Driver), a bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey. (Yep, he shares a name with his own hometown, as well as, we learn, his favorite book.) He rises each morning a little after 6, snuggles with his sleepy wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) for a few minutes, and then heads out for a full day of driving around town. In the evenings he comes home to have dinner with his wife, and every night he heads out with his dog to grab a beer at a nearby bar. In his spare moments, he jots down poetry in his “secret notebook.” Rinse and repeat, day after day. Each day differs from the one before in a thousand tiny details, and at the same time each day is exactly like the one before it in the broader strokes.

Driver proves perfect casting for Paterson. Large swaths of Paterson are spent simply watching the protagonist look, or think, or listen, and it takes an actor like Driver to make that interesting. Driver’s signature as an actor is his intensity, so when he reins it in for a more subdued role, as he does here, it always feels (at least to me) like he’s still burning up inside. Moreover, Driver is blessed with a face as quirky as he is. It’s not that he’s not good-looking, but that he looks kind of weird in a way that makes him look ordinary — that is, he looks imperfect in the way a lot of us do. It’s hard to imagine Paterson working quite as well with a star blessed with Hollywood-perfect features.

He is well matched by Farahani as Laura, who spends her days at home experimenting with different artistic pursuits. She’s flighty and impulsive, in contrast to her sturdy, steady husband. But Farahani also brings out Laura’s warmth and openness and optimism. She and Paterson start out seeming like an odd match, but by the time Paterson tells a bartender that his wife really “gets” him, we’re inclined to agree. And I’d be remiss not to mention the couple’s adorable English bulldog Marvin, who’s as much a character in this story as his owners and regularly steals scenes from right out under them. In the film’s single best gag, it turns out even he has a little more to him than meets the eye.

The film moves along at an unhurried pace. Occasionally it flirts with boredom, all the better to make you perk up when it hits upon little moments of beauty and humor and just plain strangeness. Paterson couldn’t look more different from Only Lovers Left Alive on the surface, but in both films Jarmusch demonstrates a knack for capturing the rhythms of everyday existence, as well as the miniature wonders that make up its texture — the silly conversations you overhear on the bus, the tiny coincidences that keep cropping up. It’d be fair to describe Paterson as a movie in which nothing really happens, but that’s kind of the point. These familiar routines and their minor deviations make up a life.

And not just Paterson’s life, but everyone’s. One of the delights of Paterson is the realization that every character in this movie is living their own version of this movie. A regular at Paterson’s favorite bar has been trying to break up with her boyfriend for what seems like forever. Paterson’s co-worker’s routine involves venting to Paterson about his troubles every morning. On his way to the bar one night, Paterson stumbles upon Method Man, who is practicing his art while waiting out the spin cycle at the laundromat. Heck, even the town itself has secrets — it’s an ordinary-looking town that has a spectacular waterfall hidden away, and as characters note throughout the movie it’s been associated with lots of brilliant people ranging from Lou Costello to Allan Ginsberg.

Paterson is sprinkled throughout with Paterson’s poems, which like the movie tend to start out mundane (“We have plenty of matches in our house”) before revealing themselves as something more evocative. Poetry isn’t a side hustle for the character or even, really, a way for him to express himself. They’re how he processes his world, and how he imbues it with meaning. His affinity for poetry may be the most surprising thing about him, but by the end of Paterson, you suspect everyone has a little poetry in them. It might not take the same form as Paterson’s — it might be drama or chess or simply caring for your loved ones — but that blazing inner flame that makes you unique is what unites us all. With Paterson, Jarmusch has blessed us with one of those films that makes the world seem just a little bit brighter.

/Film rating: 8.0 out of 10

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