Blockbuster movie franchises have a recent history of pilfering performers from the ranks of TV and independent films. Part of the reason is budgetary, of course: why pay Harrison Ford money when you can pay Daisy Ridley money? (Or just digitally resurrect a beloved but deceased screen icon—but that’s a debate for another day..)
The latest “Star Wars” films have been especially adept at this. To most moviegoers, “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One” have been filled with unknown faces, but savvy cinephiles recognize John Boyega from “Attack the Block,” Felicity Jones from “Breathe In” and Ben Mendelsohn from “Animal Kingdom.” No actor, though, has better leveraged LucasFilm stardom into plum roles with legendary filmmakers than Adam Driver.
He emerged first on the HBO series “Girls” as the on-again-off-again paramour of Lena Dunham’s lead character Hannah, standing out as a straight-talking paragon of enlightened masculinity who didn’t put up with Hannah’s narcissistic bullshit, even though he clearly had some issues of his own. Driver’s unconventional, rugged physicality and emotional intensity, as well as his intriguing personal backstory (religious upbringing in Indiana, service as a U.S. Marine) made him an object of curiosity.
It was his talent and screen presence, though, that allowed him to snag supporting roles for directors Steve Spielberg (“Lincoln”), Joel Coen (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), and Clint Eastwood (“J. Edgar”), and then to land larger ones for Martin Scorsese (“Silence,” out now) and Jim Jarmusch, whose latest film, “Paterson,” opens this week.
“Paterson” is both a typical film for the minimalist veteran of indie filmmaking, and an evolution in Jarmusch’s art. The deliberate pace and dry humor go back to “Stranger Than Paradise,” which was released 33 years ago. (In other news, you are old.) But there’s an empathy for human imperfection and an appreciation of the power of routine that feel like the work of a middle-aged creator. And I mean that in a good way.
Driver plays a bus driver (not sure if that’s meant to be a joke or not) named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey. In his spare time, he writes poetry, and his spare blank verse recalls the work of William Carlos Williams, who Paterson admits is his idol, and who penned an epic piece of verse titled, you guessed it, “Paterson.”
Paterson has a wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and an English bulldog, Marvin (Nellie). The film takes place over a one week span, and each day begins with Paterson waking up, reluctantly disentangling himself from his sleeping spouse, and heading to work. Inspired by things as mundane as a box of matched on his kitchen table, or a conversation between passengers, he writes poems in pencil in a small notebook he carries around. Each night, he takes Marvin for a walk, tying the dog up outside the local bar where he slips in for a beer or two before heading home.
That’s pretty much it. Laura eccentrically pursues various interests from home—cupcake baking, designing new curtains, aspiring to country music stardom. Paterson intervenes in a briefly serious lovers’ spat one night at the bar. And Marvin has a key role in what passes as the movie’s climax. But generally this is a portrait of an orderly and basically happy life. It’s demonstrably set in the present day, but a somewhat simplified, even sanitized version of working-class reality. Maybe it’s the world as Paterson, who doesn’t own a cell phone or use a computer, sees it.
Which is probably similar to the way Jarmusch sees it: prosaic, gently tragic, but with enough surreal moments to keep things interesting. There’s a recurring ‘twin’ motif that’s never really explained, and the movie’s final scene, featuring Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase (Jarmusch loyalists will remember him from “Mystery Train”), is a wry, uplifiting puzzler.
When Driver first reared his pasty mug on “Girls,” it seemed possible that he was a one-trick pony, relegated to being a hipster caricature and foil to the show’s female quartet. But now that he’s successfully played an evil space knight, a 17th-century Jesuit, and a regular guy from New Jersey, it seems safe to predict a broad and fascinating career.
(“Paterson” opens January 13 at Cinema 21.)