Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson’ is a low-key look at life in that city

Adam Driver stars in the film, "Paterson."

Adam Driver stars in the film, “Paterson.”

“If you’re looking for a lot of action and conflict, you should probably leave,” director Jim Jarmusch told the audience at the William Carlos Williams Center for the Performing Arts in Rutherford last week, in an advance screening of his new movie “Paterson” (which will go into limited release in the U.S. on Dec. 28).

Of course, if you were looking for a lot of action and conflict, you probably would have been somewhere else, watching “Doctor Strange” or something. Jarmusch has always been more interested in character and atmosphere than gun fights or car chases, and he sticks to that strategy in this tale of an NJ Transit bus driver and amateur poet (played by Adam Driver) who lives in Paterson and whose name also happens to be Paterson.

The Williams Center was the perfect venue for the advance screening, since the poet William Carlos Williams — or, as Paterson’s wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) playfully calls him, Carlos William Carlos — was a Rutherford native who wrote a famous epic poem about Paterson. Paterson, the character, spends a lot of time in the movie hanging out at the city’s scenic Great Falls, waiting for poetic inspiration to strike, or walking the town’s somewhat grimy streets. 

Paterson also hangs out in a bar where the owner keeps a kind of shrine to celebrities who have lived in Paterson (including Lou Costello of Abbott & Costello fame, comedian “Uncle” Floyd Vivino and his guitar-playing brother Jimmy, and Dave Prater of the R&B duo Sam & Dave). In a rather contrived twist, Paterson also overhears passengers on his bus discussing two famous former Paterson residents: wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and anarchist and assassin Gaetano Bresci.

Paterson is no world traveler. Like Williams, he seems to find all the inspiration he needs right in Paterson. “You are a great poet,” Laura tells him, though by the evidence of the actual poems he’s seen writing in the movie, I would say love is blinding her to his mediocrity. Paterson seems to realize it on some level, though; he never shows any interest in trying to publish his poems, or making copies of them as a backup in case the originals are damaged.

Jarmusch, surprisingly, shows Paterson writing his poems without really evoking the creative process. Paterson isn’t much of a re-writer or a self-editor: he basically just comes up with one line, then another, then another, until the poem is done. He is never shown struggling with his poetry, or frustrated by it.

And, for a poet, he’s not a particularly eloquent guy.

“I’m working on a poem for you,” he tells Laura at one point.

“A love poem?” she asks.

“Yeah, I guess if it’s for you, it’s a love poem,” he says.

“Paterson” shows Paterson going through the routines of his life — get up, go to work, write some poetry, talk to the wife, walk the dog, visit the bar — for about a week. Something bad happens toward the end, and then something magical. Paterson accepts it all with a shrug, and moves on.

Driver has already won best actor awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Toronto Film Critics Association, for his work in “Paterson.” I suspect, though, that these awards have more to do with his status as a budding star than him doing anything truly spectacular in this low-key and only moderately engaging movie.

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