Paterson (Bleecker Street Media, R)

It’s possible to enjoy visiting Jarmusch’s fantasy world, while at the same time realizing that it’s more like Leave it to Beaver than anyone’s real life.

Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Paterson, is a beautifully realized fantasy about a week in the life of a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, and drives a bus that says “Paterson” on the front.  He also writes poetry in his spare time. In case you’ve been out of high school for a few years, let me remind you that “Paterson” is the title of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams, and it’s also the name of the New Jersey town where Allen Ginsberg grew up. So, you know right off the bat that everything in this film is carefully crafted and that it will be populated with symbols that carry meaning beyond the surface portrayal of events.

Paterson is a hipster’s dream—he writes his poems in a paper notebook, doesn’t have a smartphone, walks to work (note—it’s always fair weather because that’s the kind of film this is), frequents a television-free neighborhood bar run by a chess-playing bartender (Barry Shabaka Henley), likes black-and-white movies (which are conveniently screened at a nearby theatre), and has a beautiful and artistic wife (Golshifteh Farahani) and a scene-stealing bulldog (Nellie) waiting at home for him every evening in their modest but comfortably furnished home.  

His poetry is pretty good (it’s actually the work of the Ron Padgett, who has published over 20 books of poetry and prose), so he can claim that greatest of laurels, excellence without effort. His job seems to be relatively undemanding (no traffic jams, no troublesome passengers), leaving Paterson free to note the beauty in his world, from the bright colors of the New Jersey streetscape to the conversations of his passengers. He’s also just the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet, helpful and polite and open to everything that life has to offer.

Paterson is a celebration of the small joys of life and manages to achieve a traditional three-act narrative arc despite allowing very little in the way of conflict into its story. For that reason alone, it’s an intriguing study in how to create structure with the most minimal of materials: The film’s “crisis” is set off by completely ordinary events, and the conclusion is facilitated by what can only be called an act of grace. I don’t know if Jim Jarmusch is a religious guy, but based on the evidence of this film, I’d have to say that he must believe in something, and he knows how to express that belief without getting caught up in the details of any particular religion.

Paterson will certainly push many people’s wish fulfillment buttons because it’s set in a fantasy golden age where an ordinary man’s job is sufficient to support a household (Paterson’s wife does not work, and neither of them seem to find this odd), yet the workplace is integrated (in terms of skin color, not gender) and non-stressful (Paterson’s biggest hassle seems to be a dispatcher who wants to talk about his domestic troubles). Also, everyone in Paterson’s world is so gosh-darned nice and gets along so splendidly that Ned Flanders would feel right at home. A certain type of viewer (particularly white dudes with literary aspirations) will want to jump right into the film and live there, while others will be turned off by its celebration of hipsterism and general lack of concern with reality as we know it. Bottom line: It’s possible to enjoy visiting Jarmusch’s fantasy world, while at the same time realizing that it’s more like Leave it to Beaver than anyone’s real life. But that’s OK; it’s his vision, and he realizes it so beautifully that there’s no need to mistake it for reality. | Sarah Boslaugh

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