It’s not hard to see why Noah Baumbach, our lead film satirist of the body neurotic, targeted Don DeLillo’s 1986 novel White Noise for adaptation — especially after the pandemic seemed to give the author’s prescient writer a whole new resonance . All-too-human black comedy about a dysfunctional family in distracted, anxious, consumerist America who suffers a “toxic event in the air.”
What’s harder to accept about this ideal blend of filmmaker and material – which in some ways rounds out a trilogy about broken but surviving families set in Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories and Marriage Story – is that it’s impressive in its cinematic distortion and wow , but it doesn’t get under our skin how the novel, with joking seriousness, has immortalized our collective “brain fade” and how each of us deals with the fear of death.
Although it begins with a DeLillo-appropriate prologue added by Baumbach, in which Murray, Professor at Don Cheadle’s Liberal Arts College, denounces the cultural fascination with car crashes in films, it is a largely faithful rendering of DeLillo’s details, characters, motifs, segmented narrative and sizzling dialogue, from the chaotic command of Adam Driver’s doom-headed Professor Jack Gladney, to the glorious ’80s trappings of production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Ann Roth, to all-time lines like “The family is a fragile one unity surrounded by hostile facts”. And yet the film, which premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, is more of a lovingly crafted exhibition of a seminal work of prose than a cohesive film experience in itself. Sometimes the seemingly most cinematic of all stories – and this one has catastrophes, secrets, violence, and Mind-Blowing Laughs – are the hardest to make breathe on screen.
But it moves with purpose from the start when composer Danny Elfman’s coplandesque songs herald a new school year for Jack, a protective husband/father in a busy family with kind, thoughtful fitness instructor Babette (a Greta Gerwig with a crispy perm ), coming to life ) and her hyper-aware brood: the wayward know-it-all Heinrich (Sam Nivola); observant tweener and eating health monitor Denise (Raffey Cassidy); and the smaller Steffie (May Nivola) and Wilder (Jodie Turner-Smith).
At his college, Jack’s popular Hitler Studies course has an air of rock-worship, and at the tidy supermarket gleaming with candy-colored brands, shopping is the family’s regenerative energy source (while disaster news coverage is their favorite entertainment at home). In private, however, Jack and Babette can hardly cope with their palpable everyday angst – Lol Crawley’s textured suburban cinematography transforms an imaginatively staged bedroom nightmare of Jack into something of an existentialist ‘poltergeist’. And Babette’s private popping of a mysterious white pill hasn’t gone unnoticed by either Jack or Denise.
But when a semi truck crashed into a train carrying toxic chemicals, causing a black cloud and a mass evacuation onto a crowded freeway and a cramped Boy Scout camp, mortality took center stage, captivating everyone in fear, conspiracies and speculation. Briefly exposed to the toxic air of a gas station, Jack now feels his own death like a ticking clock. What’s true about the situation, however, allows for deadpan humor: déjà vu is a rumored symptom, and Jack’s exchange with a rescue sim administrator is the stuff of postmodern variety show. (Two DeLillo nuggets: Jack’s “Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event to rehearse the simulation?” and the worker’s final parting words: “I wouldn’t worry about what I don’t see or can feel.”)
As the dust settles for the third act’s return to attempted normalcy (literally, while the toxic air vanishes), the focus is on the aftermath of discovering what Mama’s white pills are, both threatening her marriage and tempting a vengeful Jack hunts down her mysterious dealer (an extremely disturbing Lars Eidinger) in a seedy motel.
The uninitiated may scratch their heads at the elevated plot’s controlled chaos, which is thematically driven rather than logic-driven, and seeing some of DeLillo’s scenes with people on their feet — the cast is good, no one’s inspired — is a sobering reminder of that that his characters as Entertaining as they are, they are analyzed constructs rather than living beings. But Baumbach’s structural/visual/sonic approach is stylish enough that even when “White Noise” just whirls, there’s always some sharp detail to absorb or make a murderous observation, if not an emotion to hold on to can.
Baumbach also likes to evoke iconic films and filmmakers, as if cheekily embracing DeLillo’s exploration of facades, by suggesting how other directors might have realized “white noise”: Spielbergian domesticity, Altmanesque dialogue overlaps, Cronenberg menace, Zucker/Abraham/Zucker -Insanity and DePalma Frenzy all get their money’s worth. (Even “National Lampoon’s Vacation” feels appealing.) And as if to solidify this adaptation as an art installation of sorts, an end credits dance sequence choreographed to a new LCD sound system song (“New Body Rhumba”) awakens, MTV’s more prolific Creative Music Video Days.
Was this reverent “white noise” for the book’s die-hards made as a homage to the greatest hits (as long as your favorites are present)? If it does, it won’t take anyone’s enjoyment out of it, and potentially spark re-reading that further cements how far ahead of its time it was. But anyone unfamiliar with DeLillo’s rich rhythms, comic verve, and lyrical insight into a civilized citizenry little better equipped to deal with the big questions than Stone Age people should read the book. Superfan Noah Baumbach would certainly approve of that.
“White Noise” opens in US theaters on November 25th and premieres on Netflix on December 30th.