Review | “White Noise”, a bookish marriage story

‘white noise’ | Credit: Netflix

After the experience of watching Noah Baumbach attempt to film Don DeLillo’s classic postmodern novel White noise, I went home and asked Alexa to serve me some white noise. I thought she might help clear up the mess—the sometimes adorable mess—that Baumbach has concocted. Surprisingly, the white noise helped clear my head a bit and unpack the thing that had just overwhelmed my senses.

Of course, in the novel’s mid-1980s setting, Alexa and Siri would have been figments of a science fiction author’s imagination, yet many of the themes of DeLilo’s novel resonate with an almost eerie prescience in Baumbach’s surreal psychodrama. Indulgent academia, family entanglements, consumerist frenzy, environmental catastrophe (“the airborne toxic event”), and behavioral excesses caused by the fear of death are among the thematic plot points here.

Our theatrical tour guides are a pot-bellied Adam Driver – a professor of Hitler studies at a Midwestern college – and a curly-haired Greta Gerwig as his wife and mother figure to a wildly mixed family. Buzzing on the fringes of the family, at the epicenter of the story, are a professor teaching the virtues of cinematic car crashes and Elvis Presley (a sassy turn from Don Cheadle), an overly precocious teenage know-it-all (“the family is the cradle disinformation of the world,” they say) and a bizarre quack drug dealer of miracle pills.As a recurring leitmotif, the ever brighter and more promising grocery stores seem to promise an ambiguous deliverance.

As much as Baumbach reportedly showed great allegiance to DeLillo (I confess I have yet to read the book), this latest film figures neatly in the lineage of his own artistic evolution. His successful film The squid and the whale, dealt with a dubious patriarch/professor, with the role of Jeff Daniels based on the director’s father. His 2019 film talked a lot Marriage history — even with Driver — she grappled with the mundane fragility of a relationship. At the end, White noise, the film version, is a bizarre twist of confusion. The blend of realism and satirical overkill never quite freezes, but we’re sucked into Baumbach’s strange world of wonders nonetheless.

Here’s the good kind of spoiler alert: be sure to hang on until the end credits, to bask in a scene with wildly choreographed grocery store Nirvana, in keeping with predecessors like the The Stepford Wivesthe orgiastic ending of Sausage Festival and German photographer Andreas Gursky’s hyper-detailed, consumerist images of the store. It’s a tasty bonbon that rewards the patience of devoted viewers.

White noise it is currently showing at the Metropolitan’s Hitchcock Cinema & Public House.

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