DISCLOSURE: I’m a full-on unapologetic Noah Baumbach apologist. I love his movies, even the ones that don’t quite hit their marks. His latest, “White Noise” may be the cake-topper. I say “may” because this is movie that is impossible for me to unpack and process in a day, a week, probably even a month. It’s adapted from the 1985 novel by Don DeLillo which many have declared to be “unfilmable”. Yet Baumbach hits it head-on, following up his critically acclaimed “Marriage Story” with something so audacious it’s sure the challenge audiences.
With DeLillo’s book, what was called prophetic now feels contemporary. Baumbach uses his third film for Netflix as a valiant attempt to corral the novel’s many big ideas and make cinematic sense of it all. Consumerism, academia, pharmaceuticals, man-made disasters, paranoia, death – it all finds its way into the story. To capture DeLillo’s vision, Baumbach employs bits of Spielberg, a touch of Fellini, even a scene that calls back to Godard. But its Baumbach’s own unique comedy-laced signature that makes the movie work despite it sometimes getting lost in the chaos.
“White Noise” isn’t subtle with its bevy of themes, and it expresses them in every imaginable way, from giddy silliness to dark-hearted cynicism. Its a manic, tone-defying approach that in many ways gives the movie its offbeat identity. At the same time, it sends the story in so many directions that you’re left searching for some kind of connecting tissue (both narratively and thematically). I found there to be enough for me, but I can see where others might grow impatient. Yet Baumbach stays the course, telling his postmodern epic and cultural deconstruction in a style truly all his own.
Sporting a big gut and hideous haircut, a transformed Adam Driver plays Jack Gladney who lives with his upper-middle-class family in an easy-going Ohio college town. Jack is a professor at the liberal arts university called College on the Hill where he teaches a questionably titled course called Hitler Studies. His wife Babette (the always great Greta Gerwig), with her poodle-permed hair and deflecting smile, works with senior citizens at a local center. This ever so slightly neurotic couple have each been married three times prior. The apprehensive teen Denise (a really good Raffey Cassidy) and her kind-hearted kid sister Steffie (May Nivola) are Babette’s. The brainy Heinrich (Sam Nivola) belongs to Jack. And they have one son together.
It doesn’t take long for Baumbach to hit his stride. The early scenes showing the bustling Gladney household puts a vibrant and often hilarious spin on 1980s domesticity. Jack and Babette have a loving yet quirky relationship that’s highlighted by even quirkier exchanges. Take their mutual obsessions with death and the unhealthy amount of time they spend debating who would suffer most if the other were to die first. Then you have their individual idiosyncrasies, such as Jack’s impulse to downplay literally everything and Babette’s high anxiety which leads to her popping mystery pills on the sly.
Baumbach extends his playful jesting to academia through the scenes with Jack at the university. We get a good taste whenever he’s hanging out with his colorful blend of fellow professors, none better than Don Cheadle’s Murray Siskind. He’s a crackpot intellectual who is obsessed with Elvis, sees movie car crashes as an expression of “joy” and “American optimism”, finds Babette’s hair to be “important”, and develops societal theories based on his experiences at the neighborhood supermarket. He often sounds inane, but he may be the smartest person of the bunch.
But then the entire movie is jolted after a train derailment just outside of town leads to what local officials call an “Airborne Toxic Event”. An evacuation order goes out, sending Jack and his family, along with the rest of the town, frantically fleeing the dark billowing cloud. More questions of death and mortality surface, we get several outrageous and sometimes out-of-the-blue twists, and Baumbach’s signature humor seems to get more and more sporadic. Yet the film maintains its offbeat allure. And regardless of how messy things get (especially in the final act), I loved putting in the work to try and make sense of it all.
With its bigger budget and broader scope, “White Noise” sees Noah Baumbach venturing into some new directions. I love seeing that from any filmmaker. Those who have followed his career know Baumbach’s character-driven strengths, and to no surprise that’s an area where “White Noise” excels. But Baumbach gives us plenty to relish that is outside his normal comfort zone. And then sometimes he just mixes it all together to give us something completely new. Like the unforgettable end credits sequence – a supermarket dance number for the ages that is the perfect punctuation mark for a movie that marches to its own wacky beat. “White Noise” premieres December 30th on Netflix.