When you think of Noah Baumbach, "messy" isn't the first word that comes to mind. However, messy is exactly what we get with Baumbach's glorious adaptation of Don DeLillo's 1985 White Noise. Set within the world of an early 80's Midwestern college campus, White Noise is an incredibly messy motion picture and all the better for it. Having opened at this year's Venice Film Festival, White Noise has landed with Netflix for a turkey day holiday weekend release which somehow feels appropriate for reasons I'm not even sure I can describe.
Adam Driver, who seems to have acquired a habit of being in Baumbach's films with this being his fifth collaboration, comfortably inhabits the role of JAK, arguably the university's most popular professor and founder of its Hitler Studies program. He possesses a sort of haunted confidence, cloaked in both mastery and melancholy. Driver's JAK inhabits this world in which he is idolized, his frequently worn black cloak somehow exuding both confidency and absurdity. His students adore him and his faculty BFF Murray (Don Cheadle), head of a less adored but still popular Elvis Presley Studies track, essentially sits back in quiet admiration. JAK is happily married to Babette (Greta Gerwig), whose hair is important, and they share a blended family from their four marriages each of intelligent young humans who are more intelligent than they know what to do with.
If you are familiar with DeLillo's novel upon which the film is based, then you at least have some familiarity with the complex, absurd, and multi-layered narrative that will unfold over the course of the film's 2 1/4-hour running time. White Noise isn't any single thing and if you're hoping for a cohesive narrative that goes from point A to point B you're likely to be disappointed.
Much like Delillo's novel, White Noise is essentially brought to life in three distinct yet treated equally parts. The film tackles a myriad of themes - mass hysteria, academia, religion, mortality among them - and gives each equal vitality and one might also add equal journeys through cinematic history as Baumbach pulls enthusiastically from familiar greats such as Spielberg and Godard. This is not the Baumbach we're used to, though it's most certainly a Baumbach that I love. The maker of such dramedies as Marriage Story and Greenberg has succeeded where others have failed by figuring out DeLillo's National Book Award-winning rhythms weaving together a culture immersed in media well versed in creating heightened drama amongst even the most mundane events.
White Noise kicks off as something akin to a liberal college family dramedy, something we might actually expect from a Baumbach flick until it morphs into an otherworldly sci-fi disaster flick featuring mostly practical scenes shot on 35mm anamorphic film that immerses and distorts. Then, we seemingly turn back toward the liberal college family dramedy, though with more than a few absurdities woven into its cinematic tapestry.
The film closes with a cinematic dessert featuring a new tune from LCD Soundsystem that I'm still humming to and dancing along with from my wheelchair which somehow seems to fit with everything.
White Noise opens with Cheadle's Murray lecturing his students on the inherent American optimism of car crashes. Across campus, Driver's JAK is celebrating the wonder of the organized chaos shimmering station wagons bringing new bodies to the aptly named College-On-The-Hill, the first of many times one will watch D.P. Lol Crawley's observing lens masterfully capture both chaos and wonder. The first section of the film, "Waves and Radiation," introduces us more fully to JAK, Babette, Babette's hair, and their children (played by Raffey Cassidy along with the real-life kids of actors Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer, May and Sam Nivola). They are a grounded but intriguing family possessing more intelligence than they know what to do with and just smart enough to be incredibly frightened by everything that might eventually lead to their deaths. There is a cinematic white noise that permeates every moment of this familial introduction whether we're watching plane crashes or listening to Danny Elfman's rebellious and revelatory score.
When JAK engages in what can best be described as an academic duel with Murray resulting in Elvis essentially being declared the new Hitler, we're as in awe of it all as their students and that's kind of the point. Driver's physicality is mesmerizing here, DeLillo's absurdist dialogue vividly coming to life and practically being beaten into histrionic submission by Driver's substantial height, big hands, big feet. Driver and Gerwig possess a believable chemistry, somewhat grounded yet awkward and transparent to the point of discomfort. I might be willing to argue that Gerwig's Babette is a more relatable Babette than is DeLillo's, a relatability that adds to the film's emotional resonance in all the appropriate parts including a third-act monologue where Babette finally addresses family fears, her own secrets, and a certain mystery pill named Dylar.
It's hard to believe that I'm this far into my review of White Noise and I've yet to really address The Airborne Toxic Event.
Oh, and yes, the band really did take their name from DeLillo's novel. So, there's that.
This mid-section of the film is easily the grandest visual stretch of Baumbach's career, though perhaps not as foreign as one might assume. It's visually impressive, the train crash that leads to the toxic spill a practical event brought to life for the film and the entire lengthy section feeling Spielbergian in a myriad of ways. Crawley's lensing is mind-bogglingly impressive here as is the production design by Jess Gonchor.
The film's final section, Dylarama, is a more melancholy offering that dances along lines of absurdism and naturalism with equal vigor. Gerwig soars here, wringing every delirious moment of intellectual stimulation and emotional resonance out of these scenes and bringing us face-to-face with both the morose and surprisingly romantic.
White Noise is a film that sticks surprisingly closely to DeLillo's novel often using DeLillo's actual dialogue, though also occasionally leaving out scenes that purists will most certainly lament. White Noise brings out a playfulness with DeLillo's narrative that feels as if it's a visual representation of everything that DeLillo intended. The film toys with our fears of loss and death, both grieving and laughing with us rather than at us. This is a film that understands our neuroses, however, it calls us into living anyway with an absurd optimism perfectly reflected in the film's gloriously wonderful closing scene that had me smiling like few scenes have this year. Rest assured that this is satire for sure, a satire that will most resonate with American audiences and yet it's also an emotionally available satire mostly owing to the film's strong ensemble cast and one of the best production efforts of the year.
White Noise is messy, for sure, and tonally uneven. I'd dare say that not every cast member nails DeLillo's dialogue with equal accuracy and this is especially evident among JAK's fellow professors. Andre 3000's charisma is always welcome and woefully underutilized. I suppose there might be other beefs I have with the film, though when it comes down to it I loved every single moment of it even if it's the kind of film that has kept me processing since the closing credits rolled.
Rather unexpectedly, Noah Baumbach was the perfect filmmaker to bring DeLillo's White Noise to life. Bring structure to the chaos and chaos to the structure, Baumbach's White Noise leans into the darkness of it all while laughing all the way and reminding us that through it all we've still got one another. While White Noise may find more meaning than did DeLillo's novel, its journey into media-fueled learned helplessness resonates, challenges, entertains, and cuts through the white noise and into the welcome silence.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic