“Paterson,” Jim Jarmusch’s wonderfully serene and beguiling new movie, unfolds as a series of verbal jokes so deadpan they’re almost subliminal.
Adam Driver plays a bus driver. His name is Paterson, and he lives in Paterson, N.J., the place that inspired William Carlos Williams’s five-volume modernist epic, “Paterson.” In his free time, Paterson writes his own poetry and enjoys the company of his girlfriend, Laura, who later points out that Laura was the name of the woman who inspired the love poems of Francesco Petrarch.
“There is no lighter burden, nor more agreeable, than a pen,” Petrarch wrote, and Paterson, still upholding the tradition seven centuries later, would no doubt agree. As he moves around his namesake city, Paterson watches and listens, eavesdropping on his riders’ conversations and absorbing the occasional distress of his acquaintances — all of which he distills into the short, free-verse observations he jots down in his little brown notebook.
The nature of Paterson’s poetic gift is in no rush to reveal itself. And Jarmusch, whose own art seems to draw as much from disciplines like medieval engraving and Buddhist meditation as it does from the traditions of Hollywood filmmaking, works to his own similarly unhurried rhythms.
For a while, you may wonder if there is more to this enigmatic, epigrammatic movie than a string of clever allusions and linguistic puzzles. Then again, you may wonder why more movies can’t be a string of clever allusions and linguistic puzzles, especially when they end up giving way to such exquisite rivulets of feeling, as they do here. “Paterson,” like most films assured enough to make their own rules, is not just a refreshing change of pace but a revivifying one.
In short order, the movie will reveal itself as its own poem of sorts — though not the kind of poetry we often associate with cinema, with its rapturous flights of Terrence Malick-ian lyricism. At times, cinematographer Frederick Elmes does linger on the sight of the Passaic River, specifically the footbridge that stretches alongside the magnificent Great Falls and provides Paterson with a calming backdrop for his writing. But the most striking aspect of this film’s aesthetic — a better word might be temperament — is its gentle, unassuming modesty.
That modesty is crucial to the poetry of “Paterson,” as is the precisely calibrated internal meter of Jarmusch’s screenplay. The movie unfolds over seven consecutive days in Paterson’s life — each one proceeding much like the one before it, with slight variations in tone and incident. Imagine a version of “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray’s prickly frustration replaced by Driver’s soulful reserve, and you’re halfway there.
Every day, sometime after 6 a.m., Paterson wakes up and enjoys some cuddle time with Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) before heading off to work. He endures the miserable complaints of another driver (Rizwan Manji). He drives, he writes. After returning home to Laura and hearing about her day, he walks their pet pooch, Marvin (an inveterate scene stealer played by a now-deceased English bulldog named Nellie), to a nearby bar, where he hangs with the owner (Barry Shabaka Henley), watches the other patrons and stares meaningfully into his beer.
Like some of the more memorable male protagonists in recent American movies, from “Moonlight” to “Manchester by the Sea,” Paterson isn’t much for small talk, and Driver effortlessly locates the eloquence and gravity in his own understatement. If his performance seems especially startling, it’s because so much of his best-known work — from the volatile comedy of HBO’s “Girls” to his recent adventures with the Dark Side of the Force — has established him as an impudently disruptive screen presence.
Paterson, by contrast, seems recessive, reactive and, insofar as the entire movie is based on patterns of repetition, thoroughly predictable. But the movie has a way of subtly undermining that assessment, from the sly visual clues he hides in plain sight (watch the photos on his nightstand carefully) to the poems we see Paterson writing, which appear in the form of on-screen text and which are read aloud by Driver, often against a churning electronic soundscape composed by Jarmusch and Carter Logan.
At its purest, simplest level, “Paterson” is a portrait of a young artist refining his craft, drawing impressions from his everyday existence and coaxing them into a pleasing and provocative shape. The poems themselves, written for the movie by Ron Padgett, consist of deceptively mundane insights — on the squeak of a windshield wiper blade, the beauty of a box of matches — that serve less as a revelation than a confirmation of how closely Paterson views the world.
That world has been meticulously designed and arranged by Jarmusch himself, and beneath its quotidian particulars there runs a delicate, almost imperceptible thread of enchantment. Characters from other movies, not all of them Jarmusch’s own, pop up in the background, as though beamed in from some parallel cinematic universe. Laura tells Paterson that she dreamed they had twins — and from that point on, mysterious pairings and doublings recur throughout the narrative. Abbott and Costello. Romeo and Juliet. David Foster Wallace and Wallace Stevens.
There are other sly in-jokes and brilliant sight gags embedded in Mark Friedberg’s production design and Catherine George’s costumes, many of them contrasting Laura’s love of circles and squiggly lines with Paterson’s mostly checkered wardrobe.
Laura is the talkative yin to her boyfriend’s soft-spoken yang, and no less a creative spirit; a different and no less interesting movie might have observed the same time frame from her perspective. Over the course of a week, she takes to decorating cupcakes, painting walls, making curtains and playing the guitar with the same cheerfully enterprising spirit, though what unites these interests is that they let her indulge the ubiquitous black-and-white color scheme that appears to be her chief inspiration.
Speaking of black and white: Before long, you may register the way Paterson seems to function as a kind of passive, silent witness to some of the other characters hovering at the margins of the story. These include the bar’s mostly African American patrons — Chasten Harmon and William Jackson Harper supply some emotional turbulence as a couple on the outs — and a poetry-loving Japanese tourist (Masatoshi Nagase, from Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train”) who pays a visit to the Great Falls. An uncharitable reading might lump Laura into that group, though it would mean overlooking the warmth, wit and energizing spark of Farahani’s performance.
Does that make “Paterson” the latest pernicious example of a droopy white male hero supported by an ensemble of more emotive people of color? Or is it a sly, subversive critique of that very syndrome, rooted in an entirely plausible sense of its city’s diverse demographics? My sense is that Jarmusch, whose films are often fascinating collisions of genres, styles, cultures and nationalities, is after a subtler effect than these questions can account for.
What’s magical about “Paterson” — and what may frustrate those seeking a tidier, prosier experience — is its refusal to settle for clear answers. You might further question whether the movie is a portrait of a couple’s blissful contentment or, depending on how you interpret some of Paterson’s gently humoring reactions to Laura, a portrait of his latent existential malaise. There is something about these two that haunts you for days afterward — as if, for all the grace and good humor of their relationship, they were dwelling someplace uneasier, and infinitely stranger, than paradise.
Rating: R, for some language
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles