Noah Baumbach is a tremendous writer and director, giving us such amazing, thoughtful works as The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, and Marriage Story. He has a very keen mind for interpersonal relationships and character study, probably why he and Greta Gerwig make such a great couple. As a filmmaker, he’s made his bones with original stories, always directing something he either wrote or co-wrote himself, though he’s penned adaptations for others. Until now, he’s never adapted a story and then helmed the project. That all changed with White Noise, based on the novel by Don DeLillo. If nothing else, I can admire the risk Baumbach has taken by branching out, especially in taking on a source material that many considered ill-suited for cinema.
That said, to make a comparison to other “unadaptable” novels, the end result hews much closer to Cloud Atlas than it does to Life of Pi in terms of quality, and serves as notice that perhaps Baumbach should stick to telling his own stories rather than someone else’s. The satire of suburban drudgery gets across well enough that the title’s double meaning (referring to both low-register background sounds and the complaints of Caucasians with no real problems, to the point that Don Cheadle’s casting feels more like an obligation to meet the Academy’s inclusion quotas for Best Picture eligibility) is easily understood. But like the literal sense, it leaves almost no impression other than allowing the viewer to drift off to sleep. I’m not kidding. I watched the movie just over a week ago on New Year’s Eve (closing out calendar year 2022), and in the intervening time I almost felt the need to watch it again, not because I enjoyed it, but because I could hardly remember what happened. That’s how little it affected me.
Set in 1984, the film stars Adam Driver as Jack Gladney, a professor of his own self-created academic field, Hitler Studies, at the lazily named College on the Hill somewhere in Ohio. His occupation alone sort of sets the tone for the level of satire we’re dealing with here. The man is utterly obsessed with all things Adolf, but in a way that’s passed off as quaint compared to the context of those who possess the same level of interest today. This same level of ironic hindsight applies to a lot of other aspects of the film, from environmental concerns to quarantining to drug abuse.
Jack is married to Babette (Gerwig), both coming off previous marriages, and together they raise a blended family consisting of Denise (Raffey Cassidy) from Babette’s first, Heinrich and Steffie (Sam and May Nivola, the offspring of actor Alessandro Nivola) from Jack’s first and third, and the youngest Wilder (twins Henry and Dean Moore) that they had themselves. To hear the explanation is to exercise your ability to not roll your eyes, and when the whole brood has overlapping, non-sequitur conversations around the house at the same time, you instantly feel a yearning for a literal white noise machine to drown them out, because everyone acts like they’re saying something important, but in every case it’s all meaningless.
Driver and Gerwig give decent enough performances, but the hair, makeup, and costuming are a bit over the top, and not in a way that feels intentionally kitschy and fun. Babette looks like someone stuck Barbra Streisand’s finger in an electrical socket, while Jack’s hair and semi-shaded indoor sunglasses make it look like he’s trying his best impersonation of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park nearly a full decade before it’s made. As for the kids, they act as kids do, which is to say, stilted and monotone until they really need to sell the drama in certain scenes with the intensity of a school play. All of this might be part of the point, but it’s far more grating than it is entertaining.
At the core of the story, or whatever passes for one, is Jack and Babette’s fear of death. This is one of the few themes of the film that truly shines. An early scene has them lying in bed debating how easy or difficult life would be for the other should they die, with both insisting that they’d rather go first than have to survive alone, despite the fact that both are terrified of the prospect. It’s an intriguing contradiction on an almost paradoxical level that speaks to the main issue most people have with dying. It’s not so much not being alive, it’s not being conscious, not being aware, not having thought, not existing. I’m no different, and I’m guessing the same can be said for millions (if not billions) of others. I guarantee you that if there was definitive, irrefutable proof that our existence could carry on after our bodies expire, it would all but eliminate that fear. Even if the afterlife was literally Hell, for the vast majority it would be preferable to the extinguishing of all thought and identity.
So the intellectual discussions of the subject are beyond compelling, and they help flesh out the characters into something that feels like more than a set of highfalutin ideas on a sheet of paper. The problem is that the plot contrivances that demonstrate their insecurities in practical terms only work to undo that. On the one side, you have Jack, who is exposed ever so briefly to a cloud of chemical gas after the bullshittiest of bullshit occurs to ignite a truck full of hazardous materials. The family evacuates their home to escape the Airborne Toxic Event (I don’t know why, I really liked “Changing” and “Sometime Around Midnight”), but thanks to sitting in traffic for too long, Jack has to pull off and get gas. The two minutes he spends outside means that he gets rained on by the chemicals, and when they get to a shelter camp, he’s told that he will probably die in 15-30 years… thanks to the chemicals and not, you know, natural aging. This sends him into an existential spiral. On the other side is Babette, who is so fearful of death that she volunteers for a drug trial with an experimental new medicine called Dylar, Created to help alleviate whatever anxieties the patient might have, she abuses it to the point that it exceeds its intended purpose and basically numbs her to the world.
In each case, the issue is exacerbated by the respective parent’s eldest child. Heinrich, who has a penchant for spewing random facts and figures, unintentionally needles Jack (and the whole family by extension) with nonsense percentages and probability calculations about their survival that only make everyone more nervous. When it comes to Babette, Denise goes full Nancy Drew, snooping around her mother’s belongings to find the drug, interrogating her with questions that are constantly deflected, and when Babette cocoons even further, relying on Jack to illegally use his university’s resources to find out the pill’s effects, leading to some very uncomfortable and cliché dramatic turns involving addiction, infidelity, and attempted murder. As they say on one of my favorite YouTube channels, “The sin, as always, is kids.”
This isn’t exactly a bad movie, it’s just empty and pretentious from a storytelling perspective, which is why Don DeLillo’s novel has been so hard to adapt in the 35 years since its publication. But this is still well made. The set designs give off a Tim Burton-esque vibe, like a version of Edward Scissorhands set in the 80s. This perception is only furthered by the fact that Danny Elfman composed the film’s score, and it’s one of his better works in recent years. The entire musical profile is among the few things that truly stand out, aided by a sort of anti-Bollywood closing dance number that’s intentionally drab and pedestrian, set to the original song, “New Body Rhumba” by LCD Soundsystem, which has been shortlisted for the Oscar.
When it’s all said and done, this is an ultimately forgettable film, but I still applaud Baumbach for attempting something different. The problem with trying to satirize banality is that you run a tremendous risk of the finished product becoming just as boring and listless as the target of the joke. That’s what happened here. It was a noble effort, and in a different universe it probably works. But right now we’re in a world that’s just tired, tired of all the negativity, misery, and well, noise of everything going on around it. As such, something like White Noise, which on the whole has meaningful things to say, just fades into the background, pretty much as its real-life inspiration is designed to do.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Adam Driver role? Am I the only person who wasn’t bored growing up in the suburbs? Let me know!