‘White Noise’ Review: Noah Baumbach Turns Don DeLillo’s 1985 Novel Into a Domestic Dystopian Period Piece Top-Heavy With Big Themes

·7 min read

As a filmmaker, Noah Baumbach has always been a dyed-in-the-wool dramatic realist, talky coastal neurotic division. He hasn’t always been as good at it as he is today; “The Squid and The Whale” (2005), the divorce drama that established his reputation and is held in supremely high regard by many cinephiles, isn’t half the movie that “Marriage Story” is. The latter film was Baumbach’s culminating achievement after 25 years as a writer-director, and it brought his strengths to a new pitch of mastery: his ability to nail the dynamics of troubled relationships in all their frayed layers, his extraordinary skill with actors, and the nimble levity of his dialogue, which emerges from the human comedy as surely it did in the great films of Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky.

With “Marriage Story,” Baumbach enjoyed the kind of success that independent filmmakers dream of. So it’s no surprise, in a way, that his first film since then, “White Noise” (which was given the honored slot of opening the Venice Film Festival today), is different from anything he’s ever done before. A meticulously reverent adaptation of Don DeLillo’s acerbic domestic academic satirical dystopian novel of American middle-class life in the 1980s, it’s the kind of madly audacious, swing-for-the-fences literary-event movie that a gifted director makes when he’s coming off a celebrated success and feeling his power in the industry, wanting to elevate his artistry to the next level.

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In the early scenes, one recognizes, and responds with jittery pleasure, to the Baumbach touch. “White Noise” is set in a cozy leafy college town, which has grown up around a small liberal-arts school called The-College-on-the-Hill, and that makes the movie an ideal vehicle for the kind of high-spirited disputatious chatter that Baumbach is a wizard at. The central character, Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), teaches at the college, where he has pioneered an entire discipline devoted to Hitler Studies — which sounds like a Woody Allen joke, except that the film, like Jack, takes it all quite seriously. Jack isn’t just teaching about Hitler; he’s the excavator of the dictator’s soul, a rhapsodist of fascism.

As a professor, he’s celebrated enough to have what looks, at times, like a cult following. (He wears his collegiate teaching gown like a guru.) At home, though, Jack presides over a fractious clan that regards him with far less awe, even if he is still, in his way, the academic big cheese. Driver, sporting a gut, a bohemian geek haircut, and a terrible leather jacket, makes Jack a study in a certain kind of late-20th-century man who thinks of himself as a crusader for freedom and truth but is, in fact, a complacent intellectual pasha of entitlement. In his house, whatever’s happening, the main thing Jack seems interested in is the next meal.

Jack’s wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), has hair that looks like an ’80s perm (though in fact it’s natural) as well as an attitude that’s spiky enough to balance his exultant narcissism, and she pops mysterious pharmaceutical pills on the sly. They’ve each been married three times before, and between them they’ve got a reasonably well-adjusted brood of broken-home children: the sharp teenager Denise (Raffey Cassidy) and her sweet younger sister Steffie (May Nivola), who are Babette’s daughters, the chip-off-the-old-block brilliant talker Heinrich (Sam Nivola), who is Jack’s son, and a young son who is both of theirs. They’re like the Brady Bunch with a touch of the Sopranos, and Baumbach, for a while, keeps the family dialogue humming.

He also introduces us to Jack’s academic colleagues, who are treated as gently cracked without being mocked, notably Murray (Don Cheadle), who is some sort of American Studies professor with a profound take on the cheesiest dimensions of American society. He thinks that supermarkets are a deep form of nirvana, and the film opens with his lecture, illustrated by a dazzling montage of film clips, on the meaning of the car crash in Hollywood cinema, which he views as a pure expression of joy (and genius). In a way, this sets the tone for all that follows. It lets us know that “White Noise” is going to be, on some level, about violence and catastrophe, and that it’s going to regard those things with a funny and ironic sidelong eye.

The first clue that we’re watching more than just an observational comedy about a nutty professor and his fractured family comes when a man driving a truck full of toxic chemicals crashes into a train, and the accident produces a massive black chemical cloud that hovers in the distance, edging inexorably toward the town. Will it move in and poison everyone? As Jack and his family pile into their Chevy station wagon, evacuating in a miles-long traffic pile-up as portentous as the one in Godard’s “Weekend,” the film, just like that, becomes a metaphorical disaster movie about fear, conspiracy, and the toxicity of consumer products.

“White Noise” was published in 1985, and part of the novel’s appeal is that it was so far ahead of its time. DeLillo glimpsed, in the mid-’80s, a welter of clues about the world that was coming into being. And now that it’s 37 years later, we can see that much of what he saw has moved front and center: the literal poisoning of American life, the sense of spiritual dread bubbling up from under the American dream, the reconfiguring of what a family means in the age of divorce, and — most perceptively on DeLillo’s part — the emergence of an insidious new pharmaceutical culture in which people would now attempt to drug away their despair. Some of this even connects with the world according to Covid. Yet it’s the nature of these things that where “White Noise” once felt prophetic, its downbeat insights now seem, if anything, to lag behind the curve.

Those pills Babette pops turns out to be harbingers of the new world. They’re not uppers — they are, rather, mood stabilizers meant to quell her fear of death. Jack and Babette are both obsessed with death (their idea of screwball chatter is discussing which of the two of them is going to die first), and when Jack, during that toxic-cloud escape, steps out of the car for two minutes to fill the gas tank, he learns he may have gotten a lethal dose of chemicals. Or given how nuts the doctors in this film sound, is that diagnosis just another conspiracy?

These are heavy questions, and “White Noise,” on the page, achieved total heaviosity. It was a novel of ideas. But that’s a tricky thing to translate to the big screen. As a movie, “White Noise” announces its themes loudly and proudly, but the trouble is that it announces them more than it makes you feel them. Gerwig has one of the best scenes — a tearfully extended, ripped-from the-gut monologue in which she confesses her adultery to Jack, though her transgression isn’t about any desire to stray so much as her compulsion to get those pills by any means necessary. By the time Jack heads out with a tiny gun to confront the man Babette slept with, “White Noise” has found its heart of darkness but lost its pulse. We no longer buy what we’re seeing, even as we’re told, explicitly, what it all means. The film ties itself into knots to explicate the bad news. How telling, then, that it’s so much more effective when it’s willing to be upbeat, notably in a triumphantly daffy closing-credits dance sequence that takes place in the brightly lit aisles of the A&P. Set to the joyful thumping groove of “New Body Rhumba” by LCD Soundsystem, the place really does seem like ironic nirvana. That’s a quality “White Noise” could have used more of.

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