I wouldn't fault anyone for reading a synopsis of Paterson—"It's about a bus driver who is also, like, a poet"—and deciding to spend their two hours and $13 elsewhere. But I would caution them to reconsider, as Jim Jarmusch's latest turns out to be one of the best movies of 2016.
Adam Driver stars as the titular protagonist, a man named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. He's the aforementioned bus driver, a mild-mannered sort who keeps his poetic musings in a notebook that he jots in before and after his daily shift. We follow his life from a Monday to a Sunday; some parts of his week stand out, while others give into the casual monotony of life.
His better half in this monotony is Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), an endearingly artistic girl who fills the gaps in Paterson's personality. As she slowly paints everything in their house to match her black-and-white style, she also begs Paterson for money to buy a guitar while refining her cupcake recipe for the upcoming farmers market. She's a homebody ball of energy, living her chosen life in parallel with her very different partner.
Together, they form one of the most beautiful pairings ever seen on-screen. They're far from perfectly idyllic; you can see brief moments of confusion and maybe even frustration on Paterson's face when Laura proposes something unexpected or serves him a slice of her cheddar cheese-and-Brussels sprouts "dinner pie." But the sincere way she presents her desires, and their deep acceptance of each other, finds its way into every nook of what Driver and Farahani bring to the film. If that wasn't enough, Paterson's poems—which he shares on occasion with Laura and explicitly state his love for her—reinforce his more internalized affections and offer deeper insight into why the two click.
Their lives are sparingly interrupted by others. Every weekday evening Paterson takes their bulldog Marvin for a walk and drops by a local bar, where he chats with a constantly breaking-up couple (William Jackson Harper and Chasten Harmon) and the bar's owner (Barry Shabaka Henley), a Paterson (the city) fanatic who hangs up pictures of its favorite sons and daughters while playing chess with himself. This adds another wonderful layer to Paterson and Laura's relationship; she gladly allows him his rituals, understanding that their love can sometimes use the space. And it provides another batch of endearing personas to bounce off Paterson's contemplative nature.
As an actor already known for embodying polarizing millennial stereotypes—see Girls and While We're Young—this is Driver's finest hour. Paterson doesn't write for any purpose other than satisfying his own creative desires; he drives a bus because it's his job. You can see he derives joy from both, but not in a Zen-like fashion. He just seems to appreciate the little things in life, when he cracks a pesky poem or hears a rider's amusing tale. Through all this, Driver carries the character with a quiet confidence, never excitable or quick to offer a reply. He often repeats or sits patiently with someone else's statement, as if both the character and the actor are formulating the perfect response. It should border on self-parody, but instead it's brilliant.
And that's almost entirely due to the world Jarmusch creates. His Paterson is seemingly the real deal, a relatively large New Jersey city populated by students, blue-collar workers, little old ladies, and other nameless patrons traveling from one place to the next. While his characters probably discuss their city of residence more than its real citizens would, most of the conversations Paterson overhears are the generic ramblings you'd expect on a local bus. Jarmusch doesn't artificially infuse race, class, or conflict into these interactions; instead, he presents a slice of city life through a bus that offers rest, respite, and a breeding ground of ideas for the kind of person who listens carefully.
Jarmusch has done the almost impossible here: taken a blue-collar story and infused it with young life. He's found the genuine sweet spot in between hipster appreciation and the daily grind and given it characters that are both appealing and honest. He made a film about a bus-driver poet that, instead of being a joke, ends up a triumph.