When the books are written about Netflix’s big investment in prestigious cinemas, Noah Baumbach White noise may go down as the film that finally killed the goose that laid the golden budgets. That’s not to say the streaming service will never fund a vanity project again — it still hasn’t won that Best Picture Oscar, and, spoiler alert, this movie won’t be the one to win it — but it’s unlikely they’ll do so again this year. scale. Irishman was more expensive, Blonde was more than a disaster, but for sheer hubris, you can’t beat a rumored $140 million budget apocalyptic adaptation of a supposedly unfilmable literary classic from a director better known for scathing domestic comedies. We certainly won’t see anything like it again — not from Netflix, anyway.
You can also go out with a bang. Adaptation of the beloved 1985 novel by Don DeLillo. White noise is a confusing, uneven, sporadically captivating film about 1980s America’s collective psychosis and dry run for the end of the world. It’s basically three films in one: a mannered satire of academia, consumerism and the modern family followed by a paranoid, Spielbergian disaster epic. The last third turns into an uncomfortable, surreal noir reminiscent of the Coen brothers at their most inconceivable. If you had to guess which of these Baumbach handles most successfully, based on his previous works, you’d almost certainly be wrong.
Baumbach’s love for the original novel is obvious. This is a faithful, if surprisingly cheerful and ancient adaptation. Only a few beats of the novel are missing, while the screenplay, which Baumbach wrote himself, respectfully lifts large portions of DeLillo’s dialogue and prose. But despite his fan credentials, the director fits the book strangely. Baumbach specialized in interpersonal dramas, as Frances Ha or Marriage story, written, performed and filmed in a naturalistic style. DeLillo’s book, however, is sly, stylized and metaphorical, full of big ideas, big events and solipsistic characters talking over each other.
The story centers on Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a professor at a pleasantly anonymous inner-city university who pioneered the provocative field of “Hitler studies.” At work, Jack disguises his lack of real scholarship (he doesn’t speak German) and engages in spiraling intellectual discourse with his friend Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), who is considering redirecting car accidents to Elvis Presley. At home, Jack good-naturedly manages a busy, bickering blended family with his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig). The drunken pair compete to see which of them wants to die more, but something seems off with Babette, and an ominous cloud gathers on the horizon—literally. The crash unleashes a toxic cloud known as an Airborne Toxic Event, and the Gladneys are gripped by a wave of panic.
Everything about this material, apart from its middle-class intellectual milieu, pushes Baumbach far outside his comfort zone. (It is also the first period piece he attempted to perform, and the heightened, flamboyant interpretation of the 1980s in costume and production design is one of White noisemajor pleasures.) He meets the challenge in unexpected ways. This is his most visually dense and imaginative film, and he deftly constructs a series of stunning set pieces: Don Cheadle’s character Murray’s opening lecture interspersed with archival footage of car accidents; the academic duel between Jack and Murray, sneaking and pontificating around the lecture hall while they weave legends about Hitler and Elvis; Jack’s truly spooky night terrors; and the theatrical confrontation between Jack and Babette, late in the film, as he forces her to finally open up and admit what’s wrong. The latter is superbly blocked and beautifully performed, especially by the anxious Gerwig.
Although the striking, CGI train crash that precipitates the air poison event doesn’t actually work—it blatantly literalizes a disaster that, in the book, is all the more ominous because it’s distant and vague—what follows is a remarkable, continuous sequence that echoes Spielberg’s masterpiece of collective madness, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It turns out that, as a thriller director who works on a large scale, Baumbach has good stuff. Scenes of traffic jams and carnage under a sweltering sky have a terrifying charge, while a stop at an abandoned gas station has something of the stripped-down Hitchcockian terror. Birds. Later, Baumbach shows he can mix action with comedy in a farcical station wagon chase that could easily have come from a period Chevy Chase movie. White noise it is set. At times, Baumbach seems more instinctively in tune with the pop culture DeLillo criticized than with DeLillo himself.
Oddly for Baumbach, who is usually very generous with his actors, the actors falter, wandering in the surreal grandiosity of the director’s designs and struggling to find rhythm in his collage of lines from the book. Cheadle, tweedy and funny, is at his best in this strange world, making statements like, “She’s got important hair.” The Driver has some great moments and character bits of work – witness the way he thrusts his hand through his academic gown to push Jack’s tinted glasses onto that magnificent nose, with a private smile – but it’s sadly misplaced. At 39, he’s at least a decade too young for Jack, and even the paunch and patina of scruffy middle age given him by the make-up and costume departments can’t hide his essential masculinity. You just can’t buy Driver as a thwarted academic; his body does not know what it means to thwart. He is very funny though. Driver’s intensity often causes his comedic skills to be overlooked, so it’s a pleasure to find such an incredible film as White noise putting them in the foreground.
What infuriates DeLillo purists most about Baumbach’s film might be what makes it the greatest viewing pleasure for everyone else: it’s fun. It’s a muddled film that can’t find a thread that makes sense of DeLillo’s vision or the reality of his characters — especially during its confusing final third, after the Airborne Toxic Event dissipates and Jack becomes obsessed with Babette’s place in some kind of pharmaceutical conspiracy. But it’s done with wit and infectious gusto. Baumbach makes laughs and scares, often successfully, and lights up the screen with bright colors and movements. In the checkout credits, he performs a dance number in the aisles of a supermarket that DeLillo and his pretentious characters envision as a modern American church. Is Baumbach still making a point or is he just relaxing? The latter, I suppose, and more power to him. He took Netflix’s money and ran.
White noise it’s out on Netflix now.