For a society so obsessed with celebrity that it elected a reality-show star as president, “Paterson” comes as a welcome alternative. Director Jim Jarmusch’s eloquently understated new film opens this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center.
Adam Driver stars as the eponymous Paterson, a bus driver and poet in the New Jersey city of the same name. Every morning he wakes up — he doesn’t need an alarm clock — snuggled next to his wife Laura, played by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. He kisses her, slips out of bed, and eats a bowl of Cheerios as his English bulldog Marvin looks on, before walking to his job. Once at the bus shed, Paterson takes out his notebook and begins composing poems (actually by Ron Padgett). The first concerns his favorite Ohio Blue Tip matches. When his always-with-a-new-complaint supervisor arrives, Paterson puts his notebook away, fires up the bus and heads out along Paterson Street.
It’s a perfectly ordinary day that gets repeated for a week. No big drama, no explosions or car chases, just the perceptive observations of a sweet-natured guy who writes poetry in his spare time. Conversations — two schoolboys talking about Hurricane Carter, or two young adults discussing anarchy — are food for thought, humor, and potential poems. In one running joke, Paterson keeps seeing twins; in another, Paterson straightens his tilted mailbox on the way home. Laura, namesake of 14th century poet Petrarch’s putative muse (as Paterson well knows), decorates their house with black and white curtains, among other decorating touches, and bakes cupcakes frosted in black and white patterns.
More low-key humor begins to resonate from its day-after-day repetition. In contrast to her husband, Laura has fantasies of success — a burgeoning cupcake business, a career as a guitar-playing country singer. She moves blithely from one interest to the next, but she always encourages Paterson to copy his poems and show them to the world. He’s more interested in the creative process itself, and that is part of what this movie is celebrating.
Two hours of watching such mundane activities might turn deadly boring in the hands of anyone but as inspired a director as Jim Jarmusch. Instead, these quotidian events and the people in Paterson’s life — in particular bartender Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) and even Marvin, whose hilarious growl and surprising misbehavior make him a scene stealer — fascinate. Doc’s face, for instance, has the same compelling uniqueness as one of legendary Italian director Federico Fellini’s characters. There’s also Method Man rapping in the laundromat, a 10-year-old girl who shares one of her poems with Paterson, and Paterson’s informed references to the city’s famous poet, William Carlos Williams, author of “Paterson.”
The director changes up Paterson’s routines just enough to toss in a pleasing fillip or two for the viewer. Unexpected things do happen, but they are part and parcel of the ordinariness in Paterson’s world, not the over-the-top events of most Hollywood movies. Just as his poetry — drawn from this world, spoken by the poet and penned across the screen — grows deeper and more compelling, the significance of the ordinary grows, too, in this remarkable film.
Information and tickets for “Paterson” and other films at the Film Center, see mvfilmsociety.com.