White noise, the adaptation of Don DeLillo’s seminal (and reportedly “unfilmable”) novel, is many at once. It’s a postmodern satire of American consumerism and our all-consuming morbid curiosity about death and destruction. At one point, it turns into a wild disaster family movie that, despite the mysterious environmental threats that threaten the inhabitants of a run-of-the-mill American small town, never loses track of its characters. It deals with secrets big and small, attempts to pull off a noir thriller, and closes with a technicolor end-credits dance sequence that, in part, feels like it was designed specifically to outshine Netflix’s attempts to get you to watch something else the second time around. . the movie ends.
November 25, 2022 (theatrical); December 30, 2022 (streaming)
Based on Don DeLillo’s “non-filmable” satirical novel, “White Noise” juggles several genres as it follows a family consumed by the inevitability of their mortality as they face a “poisonous event in the sky” in Central America in the 1980s.
With writer-director Noah Baumbach (Marriage story) doing its first adaptation, White noise is often entertaining and lumbering chaos, and it’s little wonder it works while it works. But after a strong start it stretches itself too thin, its range much too shredded, so by the time it raises the stakes in its final act, it’s gone.
If that wasn’t clear White noise has death on his mind, look no further than the first few minutes spent in a lecture hall as College-on-the-Hill students observe a series of car crashes, the reflection of his fiery consumption plays out on a student’s eyeglasses . Murray (Don Cheadle), the professor in attendance, is awestruck as he tells them that those “clashes are part of a long tradition of American optimism.”
That authority will pass to the Gladney residence. Jack (Adam Driver) is a professor of Hitler studies who wears his faculty robes all the time and makes his way through the classroom and hallways with enough gusto that he looks (or at least serves as) a harbinger of death. as a strong argument that Driver a big movie vampire one day). Babette (Greta Gerwig), Jack’s fourth and current wife, is quite the health freak and teaches exercise classes. They have four children (three from previous marriages; the fourth is the one they had together), and the Gladneys are all under the spell of death; they are nihilistic to an extent, and the humor passed between them is very gallows-ish.
Heinrich (Sam Nivola) and Steffie (May Nivola) monitor reports and absorb everything around them. Denise (Raffey Cassidy) immediately thinks the worst when Babette starts taking something and lies about what it is when asked about it. Jack and Babette bicker over which of them will die first, and you can tell it’s far from the first time they’ve discussed this. There is something easy about the absurdity of this blended family, a testament to both Driver and Gerwig and the actors who play their children.
As much as Jack fears death, his bubble of existence is easy to manage: work, home, errands, repeat. Much of the dialogue, both the jokes and the more mundane musings, feel like it’s been lifted straight from DeLillo’s book. Jack may be a hit on campus with a college-off involving Hitler and Elvis Presley, but even his secrets — like learning German at the lowest because he doesn’t want his contemporaries to think less of him for speaking the language does not know – are superfluous.
All of that is turned on its head with an explosion dubbed an “Airborne Toxic Event,” an ominous disaster communicated vaguely enough to be equally alarming and simple enough to ignore. It doesn’t take long to see the connections between 1980s paranoia and distrust of White noise and the misinformation regularly spread online today (and in the film’s production notes, Baumbach emphasized that he felt the novel was prescient no matter when he revisited it).
Even amidst the hijinks, a poignant score from Danny Elfman and the instantly catchy LCD Soundsystem track that ties the chaos together, White noise cannot support itself. He’s not sure what to do when the bubble the Gladneys find themselves in bursts or Babette’s secret comes to light. The film’s subjects of life, death, love, and fear get a rudimentary nod, but don’t get the exploration they should, as it gives way to its more noirish aesthetic.
Still, with Baumbach largely known for his much smaller and more intimate films throughout his career, White noise is a big swing. It doesn’t always land, but it’s a much more curious movie to watch to push the envelope in the first place.
White noise will be in select cinemas on November 25 and on Netflix on December 30.