Dramatizes a contemporary American family’s attempts to deal with the mundane conflicts of everyday life while grappling with the universal mysteries of love, death, and the possibility of happiness in an uncertain world.
Noah Baumbach’s latest film, ‘White Noise’, is an adaptation of one of those classic novels that has been deemed to be ‘unfilmable’ in the past, that being Don DeLillo’s title of the same name. The book was written in 1985 and covers themes of death, religion and academia, alongside mass consumerism, moral panic, with a splash of dystopian elements thrown in, so it perhaps feels timely in the wake of Covid-19 to revisit it and adapt it for the screen. This is undoubtedly a film that is going to polarize people, as Baumbach has both veered pretty closely to the text whilst amping up the very mannered dialogue that some may find off-putting.
Set in the fictional college town of Blacksmith, ‘White Noise’ follows Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and the family he is bringing up with his fourth wife Babette (Greta Gerwig, her first acting role in six years), made up of four children, three of whom are from their respective previous marriages. He is a professor at the local college where he teaches ‘Hitler studies’, a course he founded, and he spends much of his time with fellow college professor (and sometime rival) Murray (Don Cheadle), who plans to launch his own niche course in ‘Elvis studies’. At home, Jack and Babette spend a lot of time discussing their shared mutual fear of death, whilst trying to maintain a variety of secrets (she is addicted to a mysterious prescription, he doesn’t actually speak German despite his specialism) from their children and each other. This tentatively happy home life is interrupted one day when a train accident causes a cloud of chemical waste to seep over the town (known as the ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ – check out the band, they’re good!) and force an evacuation. Suddenly, the oft-discussed prospect of death has now potentially materialised.
This is Noah Baumbach’s first movie that he hasn’t also written, although given much of his previous work has been interested in male angst and dysfunctional families, he feels like a natural fit for this material. I really enjoyed the book when reading it a couple of years ago and think Baumbach has managed to capture both the absurdity of it and the inherent truth that underpins the characters anxieties, with Driver and Gerwig both well cast in the central roles. The idiosyncratic approach does start to wear a little thin as the movie progress and your tolerance for over 2 hours of ‘White Noise’ may depend on how much you like quirky and slightly pretentious works. It has some terrific moments, but it can also be quite frustrating as Baumbach tries to wrestle the raw material and a strong ensemble into a screenplay that works consistently – for me, it didn’t always hit the mark.
Technically released last year but my first watch of 2023, ‘White Noise’ is an admirable attempt to adapt a difficult novel that doesn’t always stick the landing, but makes the ride enjoyable all the same. Make sure and stay for the end credits – you’ll either love it or have turned off by then!
Directed By: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, Andre Benjamin, Alessandro Nivola, Jodie Turner-Smith and Lars Eidinger