'White Noise' is an anti-'80s movie

Still from "White Noise." (Courtesy Netflix)
Still from "White Noise." (Courtesy Netflix)

There’s an old saying that everybody knows they’re going to die but nobody really believes it. I mean, if we did, how could we function? The foolish contemplation of one’s impending non-existence is the central preoccupation of Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise,” an exasperatingly ambitious adaptation of Don DeLillo’s allegedly unadaptable 1985 novel.

With a budget reported as anywhere from $80 million to $140 million, this defiantly uncommercial project might be one of the last examples we’re going to get of name auteurs trying to see how much of Netflix’s cash they can set on fire before the streaming service’s stock market woes prompt a clampdown on blank checks for artist types.

You’d never get a movie like “White Noise” if it needed to make any money at the box office. For the audience, this is both a blessing and a curse.

Adam Driver in "White Noise." (Courtesy Netflix)
Adam Driver in "White Noise." (Courtesy Netflix)

Adam Driver stars as Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies at a Midwestern college on a hill called the College on the Hill. He and his fourth wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) have four children and what appears to be an enviable suburban lifestyle.

But lately Babette seems to be forgetting things, and teen daughter Denise (the great Raffey Cassidy from “Vox Lux”) spots her swallowing mysterious pills when nobody’s looking.

Jack’s contending with his own secret shame – the man who created the Hitler Studies department can’t speak a word of German. He’s being tutored on the sly, sneaking off to sleazy apartments for lessons like he’s having an affair.

Still, the Gladney’s are able to project an outward appearance of enviable normalcy, at least until the nearby collision of two chemical tankers creates an “airborne toxic event” that forces their entire community to evacuate, shattering the family’s privileged assumptions about safety and mortality.

Baumbach has spent the past three decades making dialogue-driven comedies like “The Squid and the Whale” and “Marriage Story” that are mostly about intellectuals insulting each other in cramped apartments.

“White Noise” is the director's belated and rather magisterially misguided attempt at his first visual extravaganza. He outfits his actors in gaudy costumes and hideous hairstyles, surrounding them with ostentatiously phony production design, such as a university that’s painted in rainbows like a children’s nursery school. He shoots the movie with the grand, swooping camera of a Spielberg-ian family adventure, while Danny Elfman’s score deliberately mimics John Williams. Yet the attractive cast is always seen from the most unflattering angles imaginable, the hideous sets plasticky pop art exhibitions in garish Hi-C colors.

Still from "White Noise." (Left to right) Adam Driver as Jack, Greta Gerwig as Babette, and Don Cheadle as Murray (Courtesy Netflix)
Still from "White Noise." (Left to right) Adam Driver as Jack, Greta Gerwig as Babette, and Don Cheadle as Murray (Courtesy Netflix)

“White Noise” opened this year’s New York Film Festival to bitterly divisive reviews, and I’ll confess to leaving the theater more confused than anything else. It took me a second viewing to figure out what I think Baumbach was trying to do here, which is basically making an anti-'80s movie, turning all the expected nostalgic signifiers sickly and gross. (This is one of those ideas that sounds awesome in theory until you realize that you have to look at it for 135 minutes.)

He’s preserved huge passages of DeLillo’s rapid-fire, hyper-stylized dialogue, which the actors wrap their mouths around to varying degrees of success. The endlessly adaptable Driver has the easiest time with the motormouth rants, but Gerwig’s airy, addled enunciations slow down whatever screwball momentum their scenes together manage to build.

I read the DeLillo novel 10 or 12 years ago, so my memories are a little rusty, but I recall a dry, dyspeptic satire with the author’s usual undertow of dread. What I don’t remember are any of the antic station wagon car chases or slapstick set-pieces that Baumbach has cooked up for the movie version. (The best DeLillo adaptation remains David Cronenberg’s 2012 “Cosmopolis,” a doomy, deadpan delight and our first sign that Robert Pattinson was more than a pretty face.)

My personal favorite Baumbach picture is “De Palma,” a documentary in which he and Jake Paltrow profile the legendary New Hollywood bad boy Brian De Palma, who walks them through the ups and downs of his career. So it’s a little ironic then that the film “White Noise” reminds me of most is De Palma’s nearly career-ending adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” another mega-budget folly that trips over a tricky text while leaning way too hard on silly wigs.

Some of the satirical targets feel about as dated as “Bonfire,” too. (Wolfe’s book came out two years after DeLillo’s.) The sendups of sheltered academia and consumer culture aren’t exactly green bananas, and the subplot about Babette’s scandalous addiction to a black-market antidepressant lands pretty puzzlingly today. What’s most interesting about “White Noise” — besides the reckless thrill of watching a filmmaker hurl tens of millions of dollars at a movie without once considering the audience’s enjoyment — are the ideas from the book that ring even more resoundingly post-pandemic.

Still from "White Noise." (Left to right) Sam Nivola as Heinrich, Adam Driver as Jack, May Nivola as Steffie, Greta Gerwig as Babette, Dean Moore/Henry Moore as Wilder and Raffey Cassidy as Denise. (Courtesy Netflix)
Still from "White Noise." (Left to right) Sam Nivola as Heinrich, Adam Driver as Jack, May Nivola as Steffie, Greta Gerwig as Babette, Dean Moore/Henry Moore as Wilder and Raffey Cassidy as Denise. (Courtesy Netflix)

The most brutally funny monologue finds Driver consoling his frightened children by explaining that society has been structured (“sadly,” he half-heartedly interjects) so that the poor bear the brunt of most disasters and catastrophes, which is why you never see a college professor rowing a canoe down the street in front of his house. But the random nature of the airborne toxic event throws all his callous self-assurance into crippling doubt, especially after the initial emergency is over and life is supposed to just go back to normal, like nothing ever happened.

Here's where Baumbach really drops the ball, scrapping DeLillo’s ending entirely and focusing the film’s final hour on Jack and Babette’s relationship woes, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. The gargantuan scale of the production abruptly retracts and we’re back to more familiar terrain for the filmmaker—intellectuals insulting each other in ugly rooms. It’s a squandered opportunity to really say something about the new normal, about how close we exist to calamity and the denial it takes to get up and go to work every day knowing you and everybody else you know and love are going to die. Probably soon. But instead, Baumbach settled for making another marriage story.

“White Noise” starts streaming on Netflix on Friday, Dec. 30.


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Sean Burns Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.



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