Noah Baumbach’s crackerjack, extravagant adaptation by Don DeLillo White noise is one of the big surprises of the year. Not because Baumbach isn’t a superb writer and director, but because DeLillo’s 1985 novel, a satire of “the infinitely distorted, religious underside of American consumerism,” is one of the great unfilmable books, a rhetorical playground for the most abstract , ridiculous feats of this main theme to go wild.
Still, Baumbach’s film is an effective parable in its own right, inventing its own visual, aural and tonal language (while also featuring much of DeLillo’s prose) to match DeLillo’s exploration of how the human search for meaning is undertaken and hampered by a greater dependence on material culture.
One of the ways it does this is by packing as much what’s this possible in staging; White noise it is endlessly messy, filled to the gills the things. If you paused every frame of film to literally take stock of (or read or count) everything in the background, you could be squinting at the television for a year. It’s as if one of those Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap labels were a movie: each big picture is clearly made up of an infinite number of little things, all an absurd carnival of thoughts. In White noise, the world is a great flurry of matter that floods everyone at all times. Culture is one of “too”; everything has been taken too far, every product invented, every concept exploited. It is a useless, confused world, built in search of a meaning that has nevertheless remained elusive.
The film, which maintains the novel’s unintended setting in the 1980s, is about Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a Hitler Studies professor who teaches at College-on-the-Hill, a stately institution in the American Midwest. During the day he lectures students and confabulates with his colleagues, including his friend Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), an entertainment professor who develops the field of Elvis studies, and at night he takes care of his large family: his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their four children and stepchildren (Denise, Heinrich, Steffie and Wilder). They are each other’s fourth marriage and their children are collected relics of past relationships. But life in their busy home on the outskirts of college town is pleasant, even if Babette seems to be treating herself with an off-brand drug for something Jack can’t fathom.
Life goes on, with Jack and Babette enjoying their days together and worrying about the moment in the future when such happiness will end. Nobody inside White noise he’s good at “being there,” especially after a disaster that’s called “the airborne toxic event.” A train crash causes a massive spill of explosive chemicals that releases a cloud of noxious gas over the area and everyone is given an evacuation order, plunging society into apocalyptic, survivor chaos. Suddenly, the future is imminently uncertain, and it’s all the Gladneys can do to cope and try to get back to their normal lives.
Baumbach’s screenplay is not daunted by the mass of thematic subjects it tackles White noise he shuffles around, packing everything carefully and patiently. He is an intelligent and well-read director with a long-standing interest in the pitfalls of excessive intellectualism, and he proves very adept at interweaving the more extravagant allegories of the DeLillo epic with the startling and even terrifying realities that his characters they face without wavering in pace, tone, or orientation.
He also directs some of the best performances of the year: as Jack, a once-confident patriarch amid an over-the-top and often dumb culture, Driver is the best he ever was. Don Headle (the most versatile actor working today, I’ll say) pops throughout the film with the sudden spring of a mole shot, appearing as a distorted voice of wisdom, ringing in affirmations of Jack’s worldview and confirming human addiction from materialism, only to disappear again.
Some of the best and funniest performances in the film come from Sam and May Nivola, who play Jack’s children Heinrich and Steffie, two talkative, hyperformal teenagers who have a clearer view of modern times than their father. They are detached from the painful anxieties that eat away at their parents, overly competent and contrived, almost robotic in their intellectual and non-emotional engagements with the world. In the midst of all that it contains, White noise he has room to wonder how the next generation is going to handle it all.
One of the film’s biggest surprises and cinematic wins is the film’s final sequence, which I won’t spoil but I will say seems to have been cleverly engineered to foil a certain Netflix film. I mention Netflix because that is the company that produced, and is distributing, White noise; the film premiered on the film festival circuit and will be released in select theaters on Christmas Day, to coincide with its digital launch on the streaming service.
If you can, you should see White noise on the big screen (I mean, look, you should see Everything on the big screen, but absolutely not to be missed White noise on the big screen); is visually vibrant and captivating, a sharp and interesting film that wisely pairs the hallmarks of 80s aesthetic culture (primary colors!) with its more abstract and fatalistic musings. And it also features an LCD Soundsystem original song (their first in many years), one that is his perfect adaptation of both the concerns and energy of White noise.
However, it’s a good idea to release White noise at Christmas, a season of intense acquisitions, consumptions and expenditures, in an attempt to quantify emotions in objects and reflect on the passage of time measured in nearby bodies and in the things they have brought or left. But I want to be clear that White noise it’s not a depressing film; it’s enriching in a way its characters could only fantasize about, temporarily evacuating the burdens of time and need, in a mindful way and with a humorous twist.