The slow, calm pace of a Jim Jarmusch film — so deliberate, so meditative, so Zen — has always been the cutting edge of his aesthetic, not to mention the closest thing he has to a brand trademark. His films inch forward in their own languid dream time, yet the effect of that pace on an audience has shifted with the years. For, of course, the Jarmuschian dawdle is now drastically out of step with the jittery, instant-gratification rhythms of the digital era. “Paterson,” Jarmusch’s wee dramatic curio starring Adam Driver as a New Jersey bus driver – his name is Paterson, and he lives in Paterson — is a movie that’s all too aware of how much it diverges from contemporary tempo. That’s because the entire film is a self-conscious anachronism. It’s the story of an ordinary working schmo who is secretly a poet, and at its heart is a deep nostalgia for a vanished world — one in which you could be an ordinary working schmo and coast along on the sublime banality of your day-to-day existence, without plugging yourself into larger anxieties.
Paterson, as Driver plays him, has a homespun life of ho-hum comfort and joy. He lives with his very sweet Iranian-American wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), in a homely one-story house with a garage attached to the basement. Each day, he gets up a little after 6:00 a.m., pours himself a bowl of Cheerios, then heads off with his grey metal lunchbox to drive his bus. He arrives back home at around 6:00 p.m. (talk about nostalgia!), then walks the couple’s English bulldog, Marvin, usually over to the corner bar, where he stops in for a beer, shooting the breeze with the bartender, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), and the few friendly customers who are always on hand. Jarmusch may still be carrying his “hipster” cred card, but the truth is that he makes this bar as low-key and amiable as the one on “Cheers” – and, in fact, the hero’s entire life has the cozy regularity of something out of a weekly TV show.
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Then, however, there’s his hidden passion. Each day, sitting in the driver’s seat before his shift begins, Paterson scrawls a poem into his notebook. We hear the words, and also see them written on the screen, and they are lovely plainspoken odes to the hidden transcendence of everyday life. The first one we hear is about matches, inspired by the vintage Ohio Blue Tip matchboxes that the couple keep around the house. There’s a pre-counterculture beauty to those little boxes, and Paterson, following the flow of his thoughts, turns his elemental response to them into nothing less than an homage to romantic love. His poems are simple and exploratory and touching. (They are, in fact, the work of the 73-year-old Oklahoma-born poet Ron Padgett.) And though Laura keeps pressing him to publish them, he has no real desire to show them to anyone. To Paterson, the poems are his diary, and also their own reward.
Jarmusch, it may shock you to realize, is celebrating an existence that is wholesome and placid enough to seem right at home in the 1950s. And that ties into an honorable tradition of straight-arrow professional men writing poetry in their off hours, giving voice to their secret selves. Our hero’s poetic idol is William Carlos Williams, who worked as a physician in — you guessed it — Paterson. One thinks, as well, of Wallace Stevens, who toiled as a Hartford Insurance executive when he wasn’t lionizing “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” in ecstatic bursts of language. It’s almost as if they were literary Clark Kents.
As a movie, “Paterson” makes the quiet, contained life of its hero wistfully appealing. Even the quirks and conflicts don’t come to much: Laura, who has no job (talk about nostalgia!), fills up her time by dreaming about becoming a country singer or selling cupcakes at the farmer’s market (which she eventually does) or bedecking almost every surface in their home — shower curtains, pillows, counters — with intricate black-and-white geometric patterns, which she often paints right onto the surface. The designs are very pleasing, even as her obsession appears to be a mild domestic form of OCD.
After all this, though, you may be wondering: Even on Jarmusch’s own deadpan terms, where, exactly, is the drama in “Paterson”? It’s not quite there in Driver’s performance. His moped-out charisma is on full display, but Driver, for all his striking physical qualities (the loping height, the pale outsize Bob Dylan features), is an intensely verbal actor who depends on words to express what he’s feeling. He’s a touch blank here, and while that may suit Jarmusch’s cool notion of an anonymous working stiff, it doesn’t give the audience a lot to go on.
Speaking of which, it’s worth asking: In 2016, what is the Jim Jarmusch audience? His aesthetic, when it’s working, needs no justification, but in “Paterson” the appeal of the Jarmusch vision shrinks down — in every way — to something relatively minimal. In his best work (“Stranger Than Paradise,” “Mystery Train,” the recent “Only Lovers Left Alive”), that undead Jarmusch pace was organic. Here it feels like a tic left over from the 20th century — something he all but acknowledges when Paterson and Laura go out to see the 1932 “Island of Lost Souls” at a movie theater. They’re living in the past. But can a filmmaker live in the past? There are too many scenes in “Paterson” when Jarmusch, in a way that feels very 1987, appears to be fetishizing the fact that most of his supporting characters are African-American — as if that automatically made them characters. At one point in the bar, an angry jilted black dude waves what appears to be a loaded gun around, and no one so much as blinks an eye, which seems patronizing in two ways at once: He’s a fulminating stereotype…and he’s harmless.
There is, at last, one tiny situation of actual conflict and drama in “Paterson,” and it arrives courtesy of Marvin, the English bulldog. Without revealing what happens, I will just say that Paterson is forced to confront the notion that poetry is ephemeral, and maybe timeless for that very reason. The nagging thing is, it seemed as if he already knew all that.