Paterson – a review

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Paterson and wife, an everyday loving couple

Paterson is a bus driver who lives in the town of Paterson, New Jersey. He writes poetry, not very good poetry, but it demonstrates his mind is alert to life he observes around him as he goes about his daily duties. He is a man with few needs, no hobbies to talk about, but he likes blank verse poetry. His ‘think tank’ is a small basement room in his modest suburban wooden home where he has a desk and some books, his sanctuary. Oddly, unlike almost everybody else, he refuses to own a cell-phone.

Laura his wife is keen on arts and crafts, has a mercurial mind, is always doing something,  is obsessed with black and white decoration, fancies herself a country and western singer, and creates unusual cupcakes that sell like hot … cupcakes at the Saturday fair. Paterson and Laura don’t ask much of life, and life doesn’t ask much of them.

Paterson and Laura love each other.

His day is one of absolute, monotonous, safe routine. He eats the same breakfast from the same bowl, packs the same lunchbox, takes the same route to the bus depot where he works, exchanges some small talk with the same bus inspector, and drives the same bus along the same bus route each day.

After work he walks his English bulldog to the same bar, ties the dog’s lead to the same post, and orders the same pint of beer from the same barman. And then home again.

Now and then Paterson’s day is enlivened, if that isn’t too dramatic a word, by over hearing the parallel conversations of his bus passengers, or spotting twins, a running gag throughout the story.

If you think that uneventful storyline about a man and his wife, their troublesome dog, and their humdrum existence is boring, you might like me drift off to sleep a few times as the pace of scenes and lack of dialogue seeps into  your brain.

Action man Paterson is not. But he is representative of millions of people who live just above the poverty line, and just well enough to feed and clothe themselves.

The film is written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Adam Driver plays Paterson and Golshifteh Faranani plays Laura.

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This handsome beast plays a subversive bulldog called Nellie

To write and shoot a commercial film about normal daily life where nothing much happens is one hellova risk. I am not sure it pays off.

You do begin to like  Paterson and Laura as their days unfold. He is that admirable thing, a good man, and she is that desirable thing, a loyal and trusting wife. Slowly, surely the gentleness of the characters grows on you. They are beguiling; so, in that regard Jarmusch has succeeded in making two Plain Janes interesting.

Laughs? I smiled a few times, maybe gave a chuckle at a domestic situation I recognised … but how close is the film to a documentary that really should be shown on television?

This is a simple film that critics are apt to describe as charming. A few have showered it with praise and five stars. I am not at all convinced it’s that clever a study of human behaviour in an urban context. Paterson is not stressed by moral dilemmas, or participates much with the people he meets.

It is Groundhog Day without the variations, A life Very Ordinary.

Jarmusch fans will be ecstatic; it’s been ages since he made a film. The cinema I went to on its opening night, one usually showing art house type films, was full. I tried again the next day. It was only an eighth full. (I refused to book by telephone at 13 pence a minutes on a “Please hold till we screw another three pounds out of you” answering machine.) I did not hear anybody leave the theatre saying ‘Wow!’

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Jim Jarmusch – he of the hair explosion, and his two stars at the Cannes Festival

There are a number of nice touches. Whenever Paterson commits his poetic ideas to  jotter his verse comes up on the screen as squiggly handwriting. Laura squanders some of Paterson’s meagre  wages buying a ‘harlequin’ guitar and a learn-to-play guide, yet the monthly payments don’t bring any disaster in their financial affairs we might assume is about to happen. In fact, no sooner your expectations are formed than Jarmusch dashes them in more blandness of their ordinary existence.

When Paterson visits his local bar he always leaves the dog outside. On one journey to the bar a group of hip-hopping Latinos stop their car to warn him his unusual dog is liable to get ‘dog jacked’ – kidnapped. Is this the moment the story takes a turn for the worst? No. Dog jacking doesn’t happen, and Paterson, apparently sanguine, keeps doing as he’s always done, leaving the dog tied outside. The town of Paterson is a place where nothing much happens. At least the scatter-brained David Lynch would throw a severed ear onto a lawn to shift the story into top gear. If a Hitchcock film, Paterson would get mistaken for a murderer and wrongfully arrested within five minutes of leaving his house.

The film is full of small epiphanies and incidental but irrelevant detail that do not quite add up. When you begin to analyse what you are looking at you come to the conclusion Paterson is a seriously boring person, not the sort of guy a mature man might make his first choice as best buddy.

Jarmusch does something really odd. The light relief in Paterson’s day is almost all confined to observing his wife. Her antics are of the weird and not very wonderful kind.

He creates Paterson’s wife as a ditzy, child-like creature, her head and day full of amateur art whimsy, and a seriously bad cook, only good as a hot water bottle in bed, and a booster of her husband’s ego.

We are expected to accept Paterson sees her as his ideal woman. There is a moment in his poetic jottings that he admits he looks at other girls but none do to him what Laura does for him. Would a woman as flighty as Laura fall for a man like Paterson?

I can understand two people who live in their heads most of the day meeting each other for a superficial chat, but not living together.

Driver’s Paterson is a person who is very happy in his own company. Would a down-to-earth practical guy like Paterson really choose her as his perfect opposite? If so, why has Jarmusch  drawn her as a joke?

Both Driver and the tongue-twister named Golshifteh Farahani give good performances as far as they are asked to go, adding subtlety where none might exist in the screenplay, and yet … and yet it for all its ‘naturalness’ it seems a tad too contrived, too pat.

As I left the cinema fighting ennui, feeling cheated I had watched a film without drama in it, wishing I had bought two ice creams with blackcurrant filling rather than one. At least that would have spiced up the event.

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Paterson composes poetry and drives his bus, but not simultaneously

I asked myself what motivated Jarmusch to make the film? Moreover, what had the investors seen in it that was a sure fire winner at the box office?

“I just wanted to make an intentionally slight, quiet little world,” he says, “of people that were centred in themselves and weren’t necessarily ambitious and had nice qualities and were creative and balanced and centred. The biggest drama is when Paterson’s bus breaks down! That’s the big action scene! I’m so proud of the film. Don’t dare call it a documentary! It’s not a documentary, [Grousey] it’s more of a love-letter, an essay.”

As a film showing us the search for meaning it was, to my mind, patronising. Having met Jarmusch twice I feel what we see on screen is him holding a mirror up to himself. He doesn’t own a cell-phone, or have an internet address. For me, the film seems a self-indulgence. The echoes, metronomic beat, and coincidences grow tiresome.

Still, I liked the moments of kindness; Paterson stopping to hand a few dimes to a homeless guy; sitting by a little girl until her parents arrive. I didn’t like its teasing.

What I saw is a very pleasant home video, just one step above “What we did on our holidays” but without a good glass of wine or whisky to drink, or two blackcurrant ice creams to eat while watching the edited highlights of Mr and Mrs Average’s average day at average work and average play.

  • Rating: Three stars
  • Cast: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani
  • Writer-director: Jim Jarmusch
  • Cinematography: Frederick Elmes
  • Music: Carter Logan
  • Duration: 1 hr 58 mins

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