PATERSON (2016, Jim Jarmusch)
Jarmusch is playing in the same sandbox he has for 30 years, turning the volume down to 4 and playing too-cool-for-school. His muted, moseying style works best for me when it’s contrasted with fantastical elements: strange settings or dramatic ideas. Take the dreamy western DEAD MAN or the fierce, still, rap-laced GHOST DOG — these are worlds that fit nicely with Jarmusch’s tendency to underplay everything. But here, focusing on a complacent protagonist (who always answers “I’m okay” to anyone who asks) throughout a week in his uneventful life, the filmmaker displays his typical allergy to vibrancy and it threatens to ossify the movie.
Luckily, what’s left (after incident, emotion, and stakes are removed) is a highly watchable and likable atmosphere. An actor named Driver plays a driver, working in a town called Paterson with a name Paterson. Jarmusch plays on this by starting off with a conversation about having twins, then discovering several sets of twins throughout the film. But these curiosities are just minor flourishes on bland wallpaper — there aren’t any major revelations here. The small pleasures, like Driver’s face when he chokes down Laura’s cheddar-and-brussels-sprouts pie, or when he smirks at overhearing an amusing conversation from passengers, are resolutely small.
Jarmusch has often populated his films with Japanese characters, but here the expected inclusion comes in the form of a magical Japanese tourist in a strangely off-key and clumsy echo of the Magical Negro character in films from 25 years ago. Masatoshi Nagase (a movie star in his own right, though he was also in MYSTERY TRAIN) just pops up to offer corny wisdom and a gift of blank pages to Paterson, merely serving a purpose for the protagonist in a way that other supporting roles don’t (while they only exist when Paterson crosses paths with them, at least they have outer lives).
The film is modest almost to a fault. There’s nothing wrong with quiet and contemplative, especially when it goes down this smoothly. But like with the vampires in his previous ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, there’s a sense that blood has been drained out of the effort. With low risk comes low reward. Characters here don’t have any displays of heated emotion, and when they do (Everett’s unhinged bar freak-out) they’re evidence of character flaws. To be cool in Jarmusch’s world is to not let anything get you too excited; wake up, kiss your loving girlfriend, get through the day, be bummed sometimes, chuckle once or twice, and stay grounded.