Noah Baumbach’s White Noise may be the film that ended Netflix’s premium film commitment. This doesn’t mean the streaming service won’t sponsor another auteur’s vanity project—spoilers, this picture won’t win the Best Picture Oscar—but it’s unlikely to do so on this scale again.
The Irishman was more expensive, Blonde was worse, but for sheer hubris, you can’t beat an apocalyptic period adaptation of a reportedly unfilmable literary classic by a filmmaker best known for caustic domestic comedy with a rumored $140 million budget. Netflix will never repeat this.
Finish strong. White Noise, adapted from the popular 1985 Don DeLillo novel, is a confusing, inconsistent, and occasionally captivating film about 1980s America’s collective madness and a prelude to the end of the world.
A mannered parody of education, consumerism and modern families is followed by a Spielbergian disaster epic. The latter third becomes a strange, unsettling noir like the Coen brothers’ best work. Based on Baumbach’s previous work, you’d probably guess wrong on which one he handles best.
Baumbach adores the source novel. This faithful adaptation is unexpectedly cheerful and antic. Baumbach’s script respectfully lifts DeLillo’s speech and prose, missing only a few of the novel’s beats. However, the director’s fandom doesn’t fit the book.
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Baumbach writes, directs, and stars in genuine interpersonal dramas like Frances Ha and Marriage Story. DeLillo’s book is arch, stylized, and allegorical, with huge ideas, big occurrences, and solipsistic people talking over and over one another.
Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a professor at a lovely heartland institution, pioneered the controversial area of “Hitler studies.”
At work, Jack covers up for his lack of erudition (he can’t speak German) and participates in spiraling intellectual dialogue with his friend Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), who wants to switch from car crashes to Elvis Presley.
Jack and Babette cheerfully run a boisterous, arguing blended family (Greta Gerwig). The infatuated pair argue over who is more afraid of dying, but Babette feels sick and an ominous cloud is building on the horizon. The Gladneys fear after an accident releases the Airborne Toxic Event.
Baumbach is uncomfortable with every aspect of this material save its middle-class intellectual surroundings. (It’s also his first-period piece, and White Noise’s Day-Glo 1980s costume and production design is one of its main joys.) He overcomes it unexpectedly.
This is his most visually dense and imaginative film by a long shot, and he deftly constructs a series of stunning set-pieces: an opening lecture by Don Cheadle’s character, Murray, intercut with archive car-crash footage;
an academic duel between Jack and Murray, prowling and pontificating around a lecture theatre as they weave the legends of Hitler and Elvis together; Jack’s truly spooky night terrors; and a theatrical confrontation between Jack and Babette, late Gerwig’s tortured performance is exquisitely blocked and delivered.
The Airborne Toxic Event’s showy, CGI train crash doesn’t work—it bluntly literalizes a disaster that, in the book, is all the more ominous for being distant and vague—but what follows is an extraordinary, sustained sequence that echoes Spielberg’s masterpiece of collective madness, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Baumbach is a great big-screen thriller director. Gridlock and slaughter beneath the blazing sky are terrifying, but a halt at a deserted gas station evokes Hitchcock’s The Birds. In a hilarious station wagon vehicle chase, Baumbach proves he can mix action and humor. Baumbach sometimes seems more associated with pop culture DeLillo criticized than with him.
Despite Baumbach’s generosity with his performers, the cast flounders in the director’s bizarre grandiosity and struggles to find the rhythm in his collage of book lines. “She has important hair,” says Cheadle, tweedy and curious.
The driver has some fantastic moments and characterful bits of business—see how he shoves his hand up through his academic robe to push Jack’s tinted spectacles up that exquisite nose, with a hidden smirk—but he’s tragically miscast.
He’s too young for Jack at 39, and even the cosmetics and costume designers can’t hide his virility. Driver’s body doesn’t understand thwarted. He’s hilarious. Driver’s intensity typically overshadows his comedy skills, so it’s nice to see a film like White Noise highlight them.
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Baumbach’s film’s playfulness may be what irks DeLillo purists. It’s a tangled movie that can’t quite make sense of DeLillo’s vision or his characters, especially in its perplexing last third, after the Airborne Toxic Event evaporates and Jack gets fascinated with Babette’s role in a pharmaceutical conspiracy.
It’s funny and delicious. Baumbach uses brilliant color and movement to startle and amuse. He dances in the grocery aisles DeLillo and his arrogant characters imagine as the modern American cathedral during the end credits. Baumbach: point or rant? I think so, and good for him. He fled with Netflix’s money.