What exactly is Noah Baumbach up to in White Noise? The movie, which received a very limited theatrical release ahead of premiering December 30 on Netflix, is an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s canonical postmodern novel from 1985. It’s been an intriguing prospect since it was announced because the celebrated writer/director would, at face value, seem to be a mismatch for the material. Baumbach’s milieu has tended to belong less to the eerily affected, consumerist crisis-world of DeLillo’s book than to the world of people who’d feel an obligation to have read that book. White Noise makes more sense as a book you can expect to see on Baumbach characters’ shelves.
Baumbach’s take on the novel — which, thanks in part to the movie’s sizable budget, qualifies as the director’s biggest and most ambitious movie to date — is flawed. It’s also inescapably, at times even delectably odd. Strangeness does not save the movie from being boring, exactly, and that becomes a problem, too. Someone familiar with the novel might sense, as they watch, that Baumbach’s movie is titillatingly at war with itself and with its source material. DeLillo is fascinated by the systems bearing down on us; Baumbach by people with a talent for making their personal problems seem systemic, or at least annoyingly totalizing. Baumbach’s White Noise is ultimately a handsomely designed, talky, frenetic attempt to bridge those purviews, swerving between a too-clever family’s internal disharmony and a broader world — full of products and pharmaceutical mysteries and hopeless ethical choices and grand disasters — that keeps leaking through the cracks and entangling the family in a world way outside of itself. Baumbach’s Marriage Story was a bifurcated movie, too. There was the prolonged and argumentative death of a marriage, on one hand, and another throughline — the much more interesting strand of the movie — about the cruel legal maneuvers of their divorce proceeding, populated by lawyers and their talent for seeing people not as people, but as clients, bit players in some grotesque, lucrative game.
Like Marriage Story, White Noise stars Adam Driver. He plays Professor Jack Gladney, a scholar of Nazi Studies who cannot speak German. (He’s working on it.) He is, among other things, a man with Hitler on the mind, sharing with that monster a penchant for public performance, for taking his audience to church, in his own way. The robe, the Dr. Strangelove glasses: he’s as much an actor as a scholar. He’s also a family man. His wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), is a bubbly woman with a bubbly name, crinkle-curled half to death, with enough smarts to keep up with Jack and enough of a handle on reality to seem comparatively normal. Babette has been having memory problems. The Gladneys’ too-clever quartet of kids have noticed Babette sneaking off to take a mysterious drug named Dylar (evoking the synthetic material Mylar) that may either be the solution or the cause of those problems — it’s hard to say. They make for a funny little family unit, the Gladneys, living well in a professor’s house, in a college town, volleying back and forth through concerns both hyper-rational and completely normal, living lives flooded with brand-name products that Baumbach’s 35mm anamorphic frames take care to arrange, notice and announce as loudly and often as possible.
They’re like a sitcom family, only more bookishly antic. And when a disaster befalls them — a train collision that results in a mysterious toxin filling the air and pushing the entire town and its surroundings out of their homes — they take that sitcom on the road, National Lampoon style, before the movie careens back toward a quieter and more despairing adult drama about the Gladneys’ marriage. The stylistic departures make Baumbach’s approach tempting to keep watching, if only to see whether it might fail. It must be said that DeLillo’s novel has long been considered unadaptable for precisely this reason of tone. There’s the cadence of DeLillo’s dialogue to contend with, his clashing of reality with eerie bits of near-reality, that one-step-removed gaze that can make you feel like you’re hovering outside of people who only barely seem real to themselves.
Baumbach wiggles his way into that tension by rendering White Noise into a mashup of popular American Eighties styles, both high and low: the popcorny ensemble adventure, the sitcom, the Reagan-era adult prestige drama. He’s faithful enough to the shape and feel of those styles for us to notice not only when he moves between them, but for us to recognize that we, too, are a step removed from reality. We aren’t watching a simple, nostalgic tribute to the Eighties. We’re watching a movie that’s just off-center enough, just willing enough to announce itself as an approximation, that the era feels like a distant but easily consumed media memory. Even the disastrous toxic cloud that confronts this family feels referential. It’s sort of beautiful: astonishingly gloomy, a roiling gray mess with pink-purple shocks of lightning stuttering through it. We’re watching a movie called White Noise. But that cloud is straight out of Ghostbusters.
I admire that willingness to glory in these big gestures, even as the movie that results can feel like a mix of vibrant and unexpected approaches to the material paired with the dreary, misshapen delirium of incomplete ideas. The movie seems to wear itself out; simultaneously, it wears us down. There are bravura sequences here. You’d have to expect as much from a movie so committed to evoking an era of movies that belonged to the movie brats and their peers. The scene of the biohazard disaster is big, silly fun, vapidly entertaining — all the more so for being intercut with an equally sensationalistic bit of showboating from Professor Gladney and his colleague, Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), with the two of them doing a tag-team duet, to a rapt audience full of students and professors, on Elvis and Hitler. Even a college lecture of this kind has to be a blockbuster, the movie tells us; this is the world these people are in, brash and vibrant, supersized, where everything is an Event. The kind of world in which a scholar of Hitler can lord his performative authority over his audience in the way that Hitler did, leaning into his own mesmerism, proving a point about charismatic fascism while convincing himself that he is no fascist. In this world, a too-smart intellectual can liken a supermarket to church without irony (while, of course, being satirized, however gently). A simple matter of marital infidelity can aspire to the broad importance of a pharmaceutical conspiracy — a way of feeling connected to history while nevertheless navel-gazing, zeroing in ourselves.
What Baumbach basically gets right is that none of these goings-on, none of what a lush, consumer-forward, aspirational era has to offer, is enough to make up for the fact that we will all die anyway. Jack and Babette are hung up on death from the start of the movie, volleying for the position of most-aggrieved should one or the other die first. All the accoutrements of middle-class living cannot distract from the pure and basic fact that they will die; a disaster like a toxic spill only makes this anxiety more immediate — just what these people needed. They and everyone else can only talk themselves out of their anxiety. Even the academics, for all their insights into capital and power and cultural politics, delight as much as anyone else in stuff. (Picture a tweed-enshrined Don Cheadle, who’s great here, extolling the virtues of a supermarket: It’s funny because the laws of nature tell you it shouldn’t happen.) Language, in this movie, amounts to stuff. Whether talking to his precocious kids or his colleagues, Jack and the other characters swap bits of insight like so much product, dallying in neat, smart-sounding summaries of the world that will nevertheless bring them no closer to making peace with the inevitable.
Not for the first time, Baumbach has chosen to lean into the screwbally quick-draw of language. When he does, the movie gets fun, the actors get giddy, the scenes pick up the pace. Look at the way that his characters traipse through the grammar of toxic disaster. It’s a plume. Then it’s a feathery plume. It’s a black billowing cloud. We eventually land on “airborne toxic event.” All of this is merely regurgitating what the news is saying — but that’s the idea, that the language is in the air, already a transmission from beyond that has infected the language like a toxin of its own. They can call the dark cloud whatever they want; it all comes down to dread. Baumbach and his actors have a talent for this. The best scenes of White Noise resemble some of the moments that thrilled most on the page, the talky, know-nothing vapor of people grasping for knowledge of something, for the control that can come with categorically containing the world with words. In this domain, something so small as the question of whether to chew regular gum or sugarless gum amounts to a pitter-pattering conversational crisis. Do you support cruelty to animals, or cruelty to yourself? Let’s have a back and forth about it. Let’s try to make it make sense. If we can’t make that work, there’s always a pill.
Baumbach overreaches in White Noise. The movie is unsuccessful because its various energies eventually begin to feel mismeasured. Even a captivating monologue-confession by Gerwig, which anchors the dreary latter half of the movie, can’t quite push the project out of its sudden snooziness, a long spell where the kinetic sense of talk gets purposefully tamped down. There are ideas in the movie’s most spectacular failures, nevertheless. They aren’t always DeLillo’s ideas, to the extent that this is even a reasonable expectation. But the movie is always doing something — even if it isn’t always onto something.