Don DeLillo’s post-modernist 1985 novel White Noise long has been desired by filmmakers trying to crack the nut of how to bring the complex dark comedy to the screen. Barry Levinson made an attempt in 2004 that didn’t come to fruition. Director Michael Almereyda was announced in 2016, also going nowhere. James L. Brooks’ Gracie Films had it optioned at one point. But it seems entirely appropriate that it finally should land in the hands of Noah Baumbach, a self-professed mega-fan of the book he read first in college in the late ’80s and saw it as a very satiric yet accurate account of the sad state of affairs of the world at that time. However, by 2021, when he got around to adapting and directing the first of his own films he didn’t write as an original screenplay, the multiple themes running though the book not only still were relevant, they seem more of this time then the 37 years since the book’s publication.
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Although it might be nearly impossible to perfectly transfer the tricky tone and themes running rampant in this eccentric story of a college professor of Hitler studies at a small Midwestern college and the apocalyptic thoughts running through his head, not to mention those of his offbeat family, Baumbach, keeping the setting in the ’80s, clearly gets it. And as each day passes in these bizarre current times, it hovers a bit too close for comfort as a prophetic view of the future that is, sadly, now in many ways in a world thrown to the mat by pandemics, war, climate change, TMI, misinformation — you name it. Consumerism is out of control, media intrusion is everywhere, conspiracy mongers are gaining traction, academics run amok, ecological disaster is all around us, violence is an answer to get your rocks off, addictions are inevitable and a family unit struggles to stay together against all odds. Can genuine happiness only be found, in of all places, the supermarket? Well, you get the idea of what is in store here.
Adam Driver, in his fifth collaboration with Baumbach and first since their Best Picture Oscar nominee Marriage Story in 2019, plays Jack Gladney, a professor with issues, particularly revolving around constant thoughts and fears of death. He is now on his fourth wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig, hidden under a unique ’80s hairstyle choice), and their blended family from all those previous unions including Jack’s precocious 14-year-old son, Heinrich (Sam Nivola); his half-sister Denise (Raffey Cassidy); and Steffie (May Nivola), a sister from another of Jack’s marriages. The kids are obsessed with plane crashes and accidents of any kind, constantly glued to TV news for the next one.
Various other characters are introduced, notably Jack’s fellow college colleague and friend Murray (Don Cheadle), who waxes poetic on all sorts of things while strolling with him though the supermarket, a frequent hang from the anxieties of life. One major set piece in the film finds Murray lecturing his students on the cosmic connection between Elvis Presley and his mother Gladys, only to have the lesson hijacked by Jack, who changes the subject to all things Hitler.
Meanwhile, the family’s apocalyptic vibe comes true when a chemical spill is released in the town, forming toxic clouds that force Jack’s family and the other residents to evacuate and communally quarantine. Unfortunately, Jack might have been fatally exposed and is told he could well pass away at any unspecified time — though a cure of sorts could be found in 15 years, if he makes it that far. Driver is at his droll best delivering lines like, “I am tentatively scheduled to die.”
As for Gerwig’s Baba, as she is known, she becomes addicted to Dylar, a drug Jack had tried to get on the black market that, among other things, apparently is a fast fix for those living under the fear of death. She will do anything to keep the supply coming, even prostituting herself with the mysterious Mr. Gray (an over-the-top Lars Eidenger), much to Jack’s horror, and the side effects are not pretty for Baba, who has a tough time to say the least. It all gets quite complicated from there as you might imagine: a family living under a dark cloud — literally and figuratively — trying somehow to come out on the other side of insanity. This is a story that makes so much more sense in the ever-devolving America we live in now, a science fiction of sorts that has almost become a documentary for a world that can’t tell the truth from the lies. Baumbach’s solution: You just have to laugh your way through it and hold on to the dream, and DeLillo’s prose offers him for the first time someone else’s vision for his own brand of smart, inspired humor. This is Baumbach unleashed, and actually unexpected.
As in many movies of this type, it sometimes goes too far, threatening to come crashing down at any minute. But Baumbach is too smart a filmmaker to let that happen for long, and he is blessed to have a sensational cast led by Driver, who finds yet another role well-suited to his talents (running the gamut and even doing his best Chevy Chase from the Vacation movies in one frantic sequence). The irresistible Gerwig also plays it for all it’s worth. Among the perfectly chosen kids, Sam Nivola as Heinrich is a hoot in a role that would have fit Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale star Jesse Eisenberg like a glove at one time. Cheadle rolls in and out and steals every scene he is in. Andre Benjamin, Jodie Turner-Smith and others also come in and out. The great German actress Barbara Sukowa has a choice cameo near the end that is also well worth waiting for.
Lest you think all of this depressing state of mind might be too much of a bummer, Baumbach leaves us with a rousing dance number set to a bouncy new ’80s-style song with overtones of death from LCD Soundsystem, as the cast gets down in an immaculately appointed and gorgeously stocked supermarket. It only seems right.
Premiering tonight as the opening film at the Venice Film Festival, White Noise also will open the New York Film Festival in September. Following the success of Marriage Story, this represents the first in Baumbach’s new production deal with Netflix, which will stream the film beginning December 30. It will have a monthlong run in theaters before that starting on November 25. Producers are Baumbach, David Heyman and Uri Singer.
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