Frequent readers of my reviews are likely aware of my fondness for the term “mood poem,” which for all its pomp is really just a fancy way of categorizing films that don’t have a strong central plot yet serve to tell a story through events that don’t so much communicate an arc as they do evoke feelings. I stand by that as a valid categorization, but few, if any, of the films I usually call “mood poems” are actually making an attempt to be literal poetry. This is what makes Paterson such a unique exercise, and it deserves credit for that novelty alone.
Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver in the small city of Paterson, New Jersey. We follow him on a week in his life, as he goes to work, listens to the conversations of his passengers, walks his wife’s dog, visits the local bar each evening, and writes poetry on the side. Through his daily musings we get a glimpse at his talents as a poet and also gain insights into the mind of a person intimately attached to his art but has no desire to share it with the world. Contrast this with his wife, who tries her hand at everything from artisanal cooking to guitar, only to achieve mediocrity at best yet is no less passionate toward achieving fame and recognition.
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Until the film’s final days, there isn’t much of a plot to Paterson. Instead, we’re treated to recurring themes and motifs, much like one would find in a poem or a song. Twins and other poets are a recurring element, as are confrontations with various locals about town on a timed schedule that feels routine yet rarely entirely predictable. There are also various contrasts and dualities throughout the film, such as Paterson’s paradoxical relationship with his wife and the love-hate relationship he has with the family dog, which is both the source of the film’s greatest laughs and tragedies.
But here’s the thing: For all its creativity and desire to be something truly different, Paterson is perhaps more than a little boring. It’s clear what the film is trying to do: It wants to point out the poetry of everyday existence, and through recurring elements we are supposed to see that maybe the routines of our daily lives are in fact stanzas of our personal epic poem. But when you get right down to it, we’re still just watching a guy go to work and witnessing his business day in and day out for a simulated week, and after about two hours that is a bit grating. That might be worth the investment if the film were building toward something, anything, but having payoff would actually be antithetical to what the film is trying to achieve.
So I find Paterson to be a bit of a quandary. It’s an interesting film, but not a particularly entertaining one, and while I enjoyed aspects of it, writer-director Jim Jarmusch doesn’t quite make as profound a statement as he seems to have wanted. It’s an experiment, to be sure, and while I would call the experiment a success I’m not sure the end goal was one worth pursuing. Call this a slight recommendation. Just maybe expect to feel like you’ve lived another extra work week afterward.