White Noise, Noah Baumbach’s edgy and imaginative adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, begins with a declaration of love for cinema. We’ve had plenty of these lately, but this one — a college course on car crashes in American films — is significantly sharper, funnier, and more specific than most. As his students watch a montage of fiery vehicle explosions, Professor Murray Jay Siskind (a wonderful Don Cheadle) implores them to look beyond the violence and see the spirit of optimism and enterprise that pulses beneath: “There is a constant improvement in tools , skills, a mastering challenges,” he marvels. “The film breaks away from complicated human passions to show us something elemental, something loud and fiery, head-on.”
Baumbach, a specialist in complicated human passions, seems to have taken the professor’s enthusiasm to heart. He’ll soon be staging his own elemental pile-up: An oil tanker drives a freight train loaded with T-Bones, sending its chemical payload everywhere and igniting a conflagration that spews deadly black smoke into the sky. There’s nothing optimistic about what happens next, but the moment of collision is executed with undeniable enthusiasm; For a moment, Baumbach looks like the proverbial kid playing with a big honking train. Here and elsewhere in White Noise, he happily devotes himself to honing tools and skills and tackling the daunting, some would say foolhardy, challenge that lies ahead.
DeLillo’s novel — full of prescient and other theories about consumerism, addiction, environmental degradation, (mis)information overload, and the universal if uniquely American mortal fear — has long been considered unfilmable, as idea novels are reflexively attributed. In this case, there is not only a danger of disregarding the author’s satirical objectives or the icy precision of his latex glove sets, but also the danger of getting too close, locking them in a distant, often affectionately nostalgic, ’80s moment and giving them theirs drains destructive, disturbing power.
Baumbach does not entirely overcome this obstacle; Aside from an eerie climax and a pretty good scare, the scare here belongs more to the characters and their time than to us and ours. But his affection for the novel generates its own warm, balancing energy. Over-reverence has killed many well-meaning adaptations, but this “white noise,” simultaneously fiercely whiny and meticulously controlled, somehow triumphs over its own death in the end. It’s too full of life — and also too funny, unruly, mischievous, and disarmingly cute — to really do otherwise.
Here, in the domestically content but existentially paranoid flesh, are Jack Gladney (Adam Driver, pot-bellied) and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig, curly hair) raising four children, three from previous marriages, in a college town whose heart is the campus and whose soul is his supermarket. Lol Crawley’s gritty, widescreen images (shot on 35mm anamorphic film) take us through the messy living quarters and pristine grocery stores of a postmodern “Brady Bunch,” where Tide crates and Coca-Cola cans flash an almost otherworldly glow. (Jess Gonchor’s production design captures the ’80s vibe and branding perfectly.)
We also spend some time with Jack’s fellow professors (including a gruff Jodie Turner-Smith and a delightful André Benjamin) as they hold intellectual court, never more intriguing than when Jack and Murray deliver a double lecture comparing and contrasting Hitler’s early life and Elvis. Jack is one of the nation’s top professors of Hitler Studies, making his limited knowledge of German his most embarrassing secret, at least initially. (It is perhaps worth noting here the presence of at least two great German actors, Lars Eidinger and veteran Barbara Sukowa, both perfectly cast in crucial roles.)
Babette, who teaches posture classes for the elderly, hides her own deep, dark secret, namely the pills she keeps swallowing when she thinks no one is looking. But aside from their adorable toddler Wilder (played by Dean and Henry Moore), their children notice everything and delight in defying parental authority, particularly Babette’s stubborn, concerned daughter Denise (a gorgeous Raffey Cassidy) and Jack’s son Heinrich (Sam Nivola). . , a source of pessimistic data, who is the first to notice that the deadly black cloud is coming their way.
Up to this point, “White Noise” has found a comfortable sweet spot between the Baumbachian and the DeLillo-esque. Much of the testy, confusing domestic banter, with its deluge of data and disjointed facts, comes straight from the novel, although the disorienting screwball rhythms (edited by Matthew Hannam) and overlapping lines of dialogue hark back to the novel director’s earlier comedies like The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Mistress America”. But once his famous “toxic air event” is set in motion and the entire city has to be evacuated, the film, like Danny Elfman’s amazingly nimble score, kicks into high gear. Soon, Jack, Babette and the kids are on the run in their station wagon while death looms in the rearview mirror and some old Spielberg riffs lie in the street.
The absolutely perfect emulation of ’80s action-thriller clichés – just count how many garbage cans get knocked over by backwards squeaking cars – is something that only a contemporary makeover of a retro tale could have achieved. This deliberate playfulness is part of the film’s charm; such is the spectacle of Baumbach, a master of intimate little comedy that embraces the conventions of big-budget apocalyptic thrillers, complete with deadly thunderstorms, an unexpected river cruise and endless, chaotic traffic jams.
But Baumbach doesn’t stop there. He may be faithful to the novel’s three-act structure (the rhythm of its many short, self-contained chapters proves elusive), but his cunning and most appropriate postmodern gesture is to create a supremely elastic palimpsest of allusions , genres and styles to offer . Primarily a domestic romantic drama and academic satire before becoming a full-blown disaster epic, “White Noise” also morphs into seedy motel-room noir, Monty Python sketch, and most importantly, LCD, in its climax Sound system dance musical. (Don’t skip the credits.)
This stylistic flourish can sometimes feel liberating, an inspired response to the clinical perfection of DeLillo’s prose. And sometimes it can feel like too much, to the point where you get lost in the white noise of history: the marketing slogans, the academic bull meetings, the pointless government directives when all hell breaks loose. Maybe that’s the point. For DeLillo purists and scholars, surely the film’s most unforgiving audience, Baumbach’s attempts at narrative compression will seem particularly glaring. He’s streamlined the book’s cast – gone is Babette’s father, who supplies guns – and abridged or removed some of the choicest aphorisms. In trying to both preserve and open up a much canonized text, he sometimes falls into an all-too-familiar adaptive compromise.
Some of Jack’s scathing first-person insights on the page have been reassigned to other on-screen characters, a shift that compensates for Driver’s performance in no small measure. He’s utterly believable as the outwardly impressive but inwardly insecure academic who struggles desperately to maintain a sunny outlook even under a rapidly darkening sky. Jack is perhaps the most ridiculous of the obviously imperfect spouses Driver has recently played (in “Annette” and “Marriage Story”), and also the most redeemable. Gerwig is no less movingly misguided than Babette, who – like her husband but through more extreme measures – seeks to sublimate both rational and irrational fears of impending doom.
“We are fragile characters surrounded by hostile facts,” Babette notes, altering without significantly altering a mood from the novel. The absurdity of these characters is inseparable from their pathos, and the director’s apparent affection for them and his two leads makes them even more touching. The warmth of emotion that fills the film’s final moments may not be the most faithful salute to DeLillo, but it is very much the point of that “white noise.”
In English and German with English subtitles
Rated: R, for brief violence and speech
Duration: 2 hours, 16 minutes
To play: Landmark’s Nuart Theater in West Los Angeles and Bay Theater in Pacific Palisades; begins streaming on Netflix on December 30th
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-11-28/white-noise-review-noah-baumbach-don-delillo-netflix Review: ‘White Noise’ puts a loud, brash spin on a Don DeLillo classic