Poet in motion: Bus driver watches world pass by in ‘Paterson’

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Adam Driver plays a bus driver in “Paterson.” | Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street

Nothing much happens and yet a lot happens in “Paterson,” just as not much happens and yet a lot happens on most of the “uneventful” days we experience in our time on this planet.

There’s life, and there’s movies — and sometimes there’s a movie that expertly captures the daily routine of some particular lives in a way that’s anything but routine.

“Paterson” is a fable, brimming with symbolism and inside literary references and nods to playwrights and authors from decades and centuries gone by — but it’s also authentic and plausible, in its own weird way.

The latest film by writer-director Jim Jarmusch (“Stranger by Paradise,” “Down by Law,” “Coffee and Cigarettes”) is about one week in the life of a bus driver named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, with a wife he loves very much and a dog he doesn’t like very much.

The young bus driver carries a notebook with him 24/7 as an extension of himself. Paterson wants to be a poet. He sees poetry in everyday experiences, from random encounters with strangers he’ll probably never see again to his walk to work. Whenever the muse strikes, the notebook awaits.

It doesn’t seem to concern him that even if he broke through as a poet, he’d still have to get up at 6:15 every morning and drive that bus, because unless your prose poems are turned into hip-hop hits, there’s no money in poetry.

Adam Driver (HBO’s “Girls,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Silence”), an actor of unusual angular handsomeness and a strange and strangely effective energy, gives maybe his most interesting screen performance to date as the thoughtful, deadpan Paterson, who reacts to just about every development in his life with moderate curiosity and a certain detachment, especially when things become unpleasant.

Paterson’s wife Laura (the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani) is a piece of work. She’s wonderful, and she’s a major pain. They’re clearly in love and they support each other’s dreams, but they seem to come from different worlds, on so many levels. She’s clever and she’s supportive and she’s beautiful and she’s quirky — and if you didn’t fall in love with her, you might find her to be one of the most irritating people you’ve ever met. It could go either way.

Paterson’s daily routine is set in stone: wake up at the same time every morning, go to work, drive the bus, observe the passengers and the surroundings in search of poetic inspiration, come home, have dinner, take Marvin the bulldog for a walk, stop in at the local tavern for a beer, come back home, crawl into bed.

Laura, on the other hand, is a free spirit who barely has her feet on the ground. She’s almost manic in her obsession with redecorating every inch of their house in black-and-white patterns, from polka dots to stripes to circular patterns. She designs clothing with black-and-white patterns. And when she bakes batches of cupcakes to sell at the local Farmers’ Market, you better believe they’re black-and-white cupcakes.

Oh, and Laura believes she can become a country & western star — as soon as she buys a guitar and actually learns how to, um, play it. Small barriers!

The bar Paterson frequents features a “Wall of Fame” with framed photos and yellowed newspaper clippings of famous Paterson residents, from the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter to Lou Costello of Abbott & Costello fame to the Italian anarchist Giuseppe Ciancabilla.

As Paterson nurses his nightly beer and becomes a reluctant participant in various ongoing drams in the tavern, one senses he’d like to be on that wall someday, remembered as the most famous poet to explore life in Paterson since William Carlos Williams, who famously captured Paterson (the town) in the epic, five-volume poem titled, well, “Paterson.”

Jarmusch is a next-level storyteller with an amazing ability to deliver a scene that works on face value and as a metaphor — and oh by the way, how about a few asides and cultural touchstones sure to sail over the heads of most viewers while we’re at it? (I’m sure I missed many an inside joke, though I did pick up references to “Moonrise Kingdom,” Emily Dickinson and Adam Driver’s real-life past as a United States Marine. Pretty good for a state university grad, woohoo!) It gets just a tad precious once in a while.

But for all those lofty touches, Jarmusch the writer and Jarmusch the director doesn’t come across as condescending to his characters or to his subject matter — nor to us.

If you saw that stubborn bulldog tied up outside that forlorn tavern and you knew Paterson was inside having a beer, you’d want to go in. I did.


Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street present a film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Rated R (for some language). Running time: 115 minutes. Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre.

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