Adam Driver Finds Deep Meaning In The Mudane In "Paterson"

In 2011, the name Adam Driver wasn’t on the tip of many tongues. Those who knew the 6’2” Marine turned Julliard grad undoubtedly sang his actorly praises, but his angular appearance and throaty voice hardly signaled the phrase “movie star.” Jump ahead five years. The 33-year-old thespian is at the height of his profession, having cinched up two crucial roles for the foreseeable future: Star Wars villain Kylo Ren, and arthouse darling, having worked under the likes of Noah Baumbach, Joel and Ethan Coen, Jeff Nichols, and now, Jim Jarmusch. But in Jarmusch’s “Paterson,” Driver isn’t merely working. He’s carrying, lifting a very good drama into the heavens with an indispensably rich, textured performance, one that reconfigures all notions of what the actor is capable of.

Paterson (Driver) is a Paterson, New Jersey bus driver and poet, maintaining the same schedule day after day as if his life depends on it. In many ways, it seems to. The impossibly even-keeled Garden Stater spends his mornings and afternoons driving Patersonians to and fro, scrawling verses in his notebook when he can. Then he returns home to his wife Laura (an endlessly endearing Golshifteh Farahani) and English bulldog Marvin (the late Nellie the Bulldog) to begin the second act of his daily routine. This involves making conversation with Laura about her latest artistic ventures, be they curtains, cupcakes, or guitars – all done up in monochrome – followed by a walk with his canine friend to the nearest watering hole, where small talk with its owner Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) and regulars always ensues.

Jarmusch’s screenplay, which illustrates one week in the life of Paterson and Laura, is ferociously, wondrously mundane, and at the same time, utterly earnest. The couple are fascinating creatures of habit but written and played without a hint of irony. This is nothing short of a magic trick. It’s also a sharp left turn for Driver, whose stilted hipsterdom in Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” came as a solid representation of his career to date; of his rise from HBO’s millennial-driven “Girls.” No more. Here he plays, masterfully, one of the most affectionately drawn characters an actor could hope to play, shepherded by a writer-director in complete control of his milieu.

For long stretches of the picture, Jarmusch doesn’t waste a frame. Every shot is a telegraph, depicting how Paterson derives meaning and inspiration from ostensible trivialities (e.g. Ohio Blue Tip matches) or how he looks at Doc’s pictures of famous Patersonians with a mix of pride and jealousy. Jarmusch is famous for not storyboarding (pre-visualizing) his movies, a thought that seems incomprehensible here. He’s either gone back on that embargo or is simply so in tune with the material as to be the envy of filmmakers everywhere. And here his obsession with lingual and visual minutiae dovetails especially gracefully with that of his characters.

Moviegoers open or drawn to interpretive viewing will find much to pore over. Several visual motifs (like the frequent appearance of twins) add a textual layer to the film that’s sure to reward repeat viewings. And then there are the poems themselves. Written by Ron Padgett, Paterson’s poems – their words frequently superimposed over moving images – are, like the film, rooted in the ordinary, mirroring the push-pull of modernism and postmodernism of Paterson’s favorite poet: William Carlos Williams. It’s no coincidence that one of Williams’ most famous works bears a familiar name: Paterson.

If there’s a chink in the film’s armor, it’s in the parade of supporting characters that Paterson buses around. Wes Anderson fans will find something to celebrate in a mini “Moonrise Kingdom” reunion, but the conversations between Paterson’s passengers aren’t nearly as compelling as the ones he’s involved in. These moments reduce Driver to driver rather than dramatic lynchpin, ending up middling asides that undoubtedly read better on the page than they’re performed.

Thankfully, while the film is light on external conflict, what’s there is exceptional. The story boils down to a levelheaded struggle between husband and wife over Paterson sharing, or not sharing, his poems. Laura begs him incessantly to make photocopies of his notebook. He agrees. The outcome of his acquiescence is both appropriately commonplace and absolutely shattering, proving the worth of the film’s aim and the partnership between filmmaker and his leads. Theirs is ultimately a weighty work of death and rebirth, a man and his notebook, and the power of words, no matter the venue. The city of Paterson, truly.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: December 28, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Amazon Studios, Bleecker Street
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley
MPAA Rating: R (for some language)