A film review by Craig J. Koban January 14, 2023


2022, R, 135 mins.

Adam Driver as Jack Gladney  /  Greta Gerwig as Babbette  /  Raffey Cassidy as Denise  /  Sam Nivola as Heinrich  /  May Nivola as Steffie  /  Don Cheadle as Murray Siskind  /  Jodie Turner-Smith as Winnie Richards  /  André 3000 as Elliot Lasher  /  Lars Eidinger as Arlo Shell

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, based on the book by Don DeLillo




Even though that I have not read it myself, there has been ample discussion over the years about Don DeLillo's 1985 absurdist novel WHITE NOISE being completely unfilmable.   

After watching writer/director Noah Baumbach's committed, but ultimately meandering and unwieldy Netflix produced film adaptation I can easily see why.   

The source material is certainly ambitious in its tone and scope, and appropriating such work for silver screen consumption is - no doubt - an unenviable and commendable task in its own right.  And Baumbach is a filmmaker that I've respected and championed for years, coming off of a relative critical success with his multiple Oscar nominated MARRIAGE STORY in 2019.  There are certainly elements in WHITE NOISE that cater to Baumbach's unique sensibilities, not to mention that it allows him to re-team his frequent muse in Greta Gerwig and his MARRIAGE STORY star Adam Driver.  This is also Baumbach working on a much higher budget than he's usually afforded in his career.  The ingredients are here for a great film, to be clear, but something is just so off about WHITE NOISE throughout.  Ultimately - and by the time the film reached its conclusion - I struggled to understand what Baumbach was trying to say and what tone he was trying to harness.  

WHITE NOISE is a mess.  Well...a compelling mess, at least. 

There's a cacophony of different genres all vying for attention here, whether it be the family drama, the nostalgic period comedy, and a sci-fi disaster picture (more on that in a bit).  Set in the neon hued mid-1980s, Driver stars as Jack Gladney, a smart, but relatively pompous professor of "Hitler Studies" at the College-on-the-Hill in Ohio.  Specializing in Nazi Germany seems odd for Jack, especially seeing as he speaks no German whatsoever (that rarely holds him back from his academic pursuits, though).  On the home front he's married to Babbette (Gerwig), who's a relatively well adjusted homemaker trying to raise a family, including a mixture of kids from previous marriages: There's Denise (who comes from Babbette's last marriage) and Heinrich and Steffie (who come from two of Jack's previous marriages) and finally Wilder, who's the offspring of Jack and Babbette.  Jack has a friend and confidant in Murray (Don Cheadle), who's a professor that specializes in pop culture icons and American culture (whereas Jack focuses solely on Hitler, Murray wants to hone in his area of specialty on Elvis Presley).  

Life is chaotic for the always on the move Jack and Babbette, but things start to take strange turns when Denise finds a very odd prescription medication that her mother is taking behind everyone's backs...and one that's not very well know to most doctors at large.  Aside from the usual levels of sustained chaos in his household, Jack has this nagging fear of death, which becomes manifested tenfold when a nearby train derailment unleashes a massive chemical spill, and the explosion and subsequent toxic fumes that come out of it start spreading into the air and are coming alarmingly close to the town.  Panic starts to settle in for all the town's residents, which leads to a mandatory evacuation of everyone to get as far away from this dangerous cloud of "Nyodene D" as they can.  As black clouds begin to ominously close in on everyone that's fleeing it, perpetual end-of-the-world feelings start to take hold, which forces Jack, Babbette and family to get up close and personal with the nagging prospect of doomsday coming.  Unfortunately for Jack, he accidentally exposes himself too long to this "Airborne Toxic Event," which he initially brushes off, but then is coaxed on by his kids to take seriously.  Life for him - and everyone around him - is about to change in fundamental ways... 

...or....does it? 



Believe it or not, I've barely just cracked the surface of the first half or so of WHITE NOISE, and I don't want to say much more about what happens after this point, other than to say that nothing really unfolds in the manner that one would expect from such a world ending premise in a film.  What I will say is that WHITE NOISE has an undeniably eerie timeliness when it comes to citizens having to face off against an airborne event that threatens to make them sick and/or kill them if exposed.  DeLillo's novel was, obviously enough, written several decades before our current pandemic, but the manner that Baumbach's adaptation mirrors a lot of the societal unease and fear related to COVID is unmistakable in its relevance.  Some of the townsfolk outright dismiss the cloud as nothing to be alarmed about, whereas others are rightfully worried.  Panic ensues when some are exposed to the toxic cloud and what that means to others around them that were unprotected.  Local authorities step in to assert some semblance of law, order, and containment, which is spat on by many.  Society in the film is taken to a fragile breaking point.  This is not a pandemic film, but it feels like it in many respects. 

The first half of WHITE NOISE works the best as Baumbach introduces us to all of the key players of this tight and diverse family unit and how they awkwardly come together when their version of domestic peace gets completely unraveled when disaster strikes the town.  Baumbach is on assured ground as he bobs and weaves through all of these seemingly well realized and colorfully quirky personalities that litter his story, and he also has a field day with the financial resources that he was given in terms of turning back time and firmly planting viewers right smack dab in Regan-era America.  And when it gets to the unnerving details of the toxic cloud itself, Baumbach uses some convincing visual effects to give it an threatening aura of constant dread.  This is a fairly large scale production as far as the typically small and self contained indie gems that Baumbach is known for, leaving WHITE NOISE on solid visual footing.  He also has some grisly fun playing off some of the twisted misadventures that Jack and his clan have while escaping their end-of-days scenario.  There are moments when WHITE NOISE kind of plays like a Clark Griswald family-esque VACATION picture morphed with a disaster thriller, which scores some decent - but chilling - laughs.  And it is funny to see the coldly analytical and everything-is-fine dispositional Jack coming face to face with the worst aspects of a paranoid society on the run. 

But the second half of WHITE NOISE...wow...that's a whole different type of disaster picture altogether.  Without spoiling, the overall narrative trajectory segues completely away from the scary toxic cloud event and later treats it like an afterthought and then radically and untidily switches tones and gears to become about something...else.   It's during these sections when the film becomes more about Jack deep diving into the unhealthy mysteries of Babbette's secret pill popping ways, which grows to baffle Jack and make him deeply concerned about the well being of his marriage as a whole.  This culminates to an one-man investigation on his part, which later gives way to would-be stunning revelations, plot twists, standoffs, and finally to a climax that feels so hopelessly out of tune with the entire film that led into that it will easily leave viewers thinking that someone switched reels in the cinema.  Whatever modest impact that WHITE NOISE had in its early expositional stages becomes untethered in the end as it tries to become dark and serious with aspects of its themes and subject matter that never seem to coalesce with the whimsical vibe that permeated the rest of the film.  Beyond being a commentary of fear, paranoia, and marital woes, WHITE NOISE tries to cram in ruminations about consumerism and its numbing effects on the masses.  There's simply too much going on in Baumbach's film for its own good, to the point where it feels like its waging war on itself. 

It's not the cast's fault, however, because Driver and Gerwig in tandem here are pretty fantastic as an on-screen couple that have went through a combined three marriages (ouch!).  Driver is always a compelling actor regardless of role and he plays his highbrow intellectual with the right balance of bumbling weirdness and vulnerability.  Gerwig is also a clear standout playing her big haired wife/mother that outwardly seems like a cauldron of positive energy despite harboring dark secrets.  The performances resoundingly click in WHITE NOISE, as does the film's paralleling (albeit unintentional in the novel) disaster elements with that of our ongoing COVID woes and uncertainties.  It's also cool to see Baumbach being granted a larger pool of money to swim around in and unleash in a film.  But WHITE NOISE became less enthralling as it progressed; it starts strongly, builds towards a potent mid-section, but then woefully collapses in its back half, and by that point there was no saving it.  Both enjoyable and frustrating in equal measure, WHITE NOISE emerges as a real conundrum picture....a Rorschach Test, if you will.   It asks audience to interpret what they see, but I'm having my doubts that even Baumbach was completely sure of what he made here.    

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