Director Jim Jarmusch’s films are an acquired taste. He may have garnered some commercial success with ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (also a testament to leads Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton), but with PATERSON, he loses a lot of that crossover appeal. With poetic montages similar to “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey,” but without the self-aware hilarity, and with no engaging characters, the wheels on the bus are left spinning.
Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver in Paterson New Jersey, who, on his breaks, scribbles poetry in a notebook. Every day is the same: he wakes up around 6AM, kisses his loving free-spirit artist girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) goodbye, eats Cheerios, walks to work, kibbutzes with his boss Donny (Rizwan Manji) about his ailments, and then drives, occasionally overhearing passengers’ conversations. On his break, he writes by a waterfall, eating the lunch Laura packed for him. At the end of the day, he makes his way home, straightens the mailbox after getting the mail, chats with Laura a bit, then walks their English Bulldog Melvin to the local bar and drinks a beer. That’s the almost groundhog-ian existence he lives every day.
Jarmusch stops short of making any definitive connections to the ideas he quickly posits. His ideas are spaghetti thrown against the wall to see if they stick. His hero doesn’t want to – or at least doesn’t demonstrate any want to – veer from his comfortable routine. When minor complications arise in Paterson’s life, he appears shell-shocked. Is it because he was in the military and suffering from PTSD? Maybe, but the film stops short of saying this. Am I extrapolating too much? Possibly. We’ll never know. Plus, you spend most of the movie clenched because Jarmusch steers you into thinking Melvin will be stolen. Let me help you relax now: he’s fine. I mean, thank God Jarmusch lacks the ability to follow through with this. However, what this demonstrates more than anything is that he doesn’t know how to utilize foreshadowing properly.
Any sort of discernible conflict is saved for predictable third act shenanigans – and that’s a big problem since what leads up to it isn’t compelling enough to care. You can see the pieces lining up long before it happens, so when it occurs, you’re ready for it to be over. It would be perfectly fine to coast on atmosphere. However, it’s extremely difficult to immerse yourself in the beauty of the mundane as there’s only vapid pretension.
There are blips of light every now and then. There’s a sweet scene that involves Paterson and a young girl waxing poetic on writing poetry. It should also say something that his skills equal a 12-year-old’s. It doesn’t impact him long-term, but at least it gets the audience invested – albeit briefly. The most riveting segment is when the bus breaks down and he has to use a child passenger’s phone. Jarmusch employs callbacks that do evoke genuine laughter when bystanders respond to him recounting this part of his day.
Look, if you are a Jarmusch completist, this is for you. If you like slow movies with little to no arcs, conflict or drama, this is also for you. But for the rest of you: wait for the next bus.
1.5 out of 5
PATERSON played AFI Fest on November 12 and 16. It opens on December 28.