'White Noise:' A Delightfully Different Wavelength
White Noise is a perfect title for Noah Baumbach’s latest film. Characters drone on and on with half-baked speculations and trivial tangents. The plot sounds exciting in theory yet nothing seems to land with any dramatic impact. Baumbach randomly gestures at themes without ever bothering to pull them together into a satisfying whole. White Noise makes little case for its own ambiance, for why you should tune in rather than out…
…and that’s its charm. Contrary to the onslaught of mixed and outright negative reviews, I found myself amused and impressed by this curious adaptation. There’s an abundance of free-floating weirdness to soak in, captured with visual panache and handled with a perfect mixture of contemplative and breezy. If the “postmodern blockbuster” ever takes off as a genre, White Noise would make a compelling blueprint.
Much of the credit goes to Don DeLillo, who wrote the original novel of the same name in 1985. Its seminal status in American literature is well deserved. The semi-ironic prose flies off the page with sharp one-liners and circuitous digressions, evoking the mundanities, anxieties, and joys of American life under late capitalism. Family members exchange information of questionable accuracy; televised disasters bring about a strange sense of comfort; brand names inspire religious experiences.
If you like the film, you will love the novel. The converse is not necessarily true; many have criticized Baumbach for being too faithful to the source material or too afraid to update it or contribute his own ideas to the work. I felt this way at first, as the dialogue that reads brilliantly on the page often feels stilted when spoken aloud, and something feels missing without the protagonist’s wide-ranging inner monologue. However, I don’t agree that the book is inherently “unfilmable,” and I’d argue that this is one of the best possible adaptations that one could make without going full-blown experimental, which would polarize its audience in a different way.
Both versions of White Noise center around the experience of Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a mild-mannered professor at the delightfully generic College-on-the-Hill. Gladney is the preeminent scholar in a field called Hitler Studies, motivated more by the desire to plant his flag in unclaimed academic territory than any genuine understanding of the subject matter. He is married to the caring Babette (Greta Gerwig), and together they raise four children and step-children, accumulated from several previous marriages (the entire family is played to perfection, par for the course for Driver and Gerwig but especially impressive from the cast of child actors).
After an ambling introduction, White Noise reaches a dizzying peak with the Airborne Toxic Event, an apocalyptic cloud of the chemical Nyodene D reported to cause symptoms ranging from sweaty palms to déjà vu. Following ever-changing and contradictory instructions from the government, the Gladneys evacuate their home, eventually forced to quarantine in a communal shelter for nine days. In a hilariously representative bit, an organization called SIMUVAC uses the real disaster to rehearse for their simulations:
“The insertion curve isn’t as smooth as we’d like. We don’t have our victims laid out where we’d want them if this was an actual simulation. You have to make allowances for the fact that everything tonight is real.”
Jack is briefly but incurably exposed to Nyodene D, and as ordinary life resumes, his fear of death increases. So too is Babette, battling her own mortal fear, leading her to take the experimental and side-effect-heavy drug Dylar to soothe her anxiety. Prompted by the concern of their daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy), Jack goes down a rabbit hole investigating Dylar, involving a shadowy conspiracy, atheist German nuns, and the cryptic message “NU MISH BOOT ZUP KO.” The film closes with an inspired dance number to LCD Soundsystem, a collective spiritual rebirth in the supermarket.
Baumbach stages White Noise as a period piece, with quirky costumes and elaborate set pieces straight out of the 1980s. Some will read this as nostalgic, hopping on the bandwagon of the ongoing '80s craze, while others will see it as critical, poking fun at the era’s tackiness and hyperconsumerism. In my opinion, apart from simply being fun to look at, its effect is primarily distractive, using the illusion of a decade-specific satire to mask its more universal theming and uncanny prescience.
The ubiquitous noise that DeLillo explored is also louder today than ever before, and even throwaway moments reflect back at us strongly. Most viewers will see a part of themselves in Heinrich (Sam Nivola), glued to his radio in awe and morbid curiosity as the “feathery plume” gets upgraded to a “black billowing cloud.” They might also observe a playful synecdoche in how misinformation proliferates within the bubble of the Gladney family. And who among us hasn’t found ourselves fatigued by the supermarket, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of “psychic data” on display?
Although Baumbach often lets the source material speak for itself, he sprinkles in scenes and gestures that could only work via film, showing off a new flair for composition. Jack’s fear of his mortality is strikingly illustrated by shadows dancing around his bedroom wall, and his obsession with the Dylar conspiracy by a spinning overhead shot as he rummages through the family’s trash. Originally separate threads of conversation are frequently condensed and layered on top of each other to create an inane cacophony, enhanced by dynamic blocking in the vein of Baumbach’s previous mumblecore forays.
The film’s finest direction appears in a debate between Gladney and his colleague Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), presented as an offhand dialogue in the novel but here transformed into a spectacle. The professors trade anecdotes to a rapt classroom of Hitler and Elvis as “mama’s boy[s],” eventually devolving into a quasi-fascist monologue by Gladney (resembling the Grim Reaper) about the relationship of crowds to death. This is all intercut with historical footage of both figures and the accident that causes the Airborne Toxic Event, an ironic exercise in free association and a delicious satire of academic navel-gazing.
White Noise doesn’t always hit its target, maybe because its target isn’t always clear. Those expecting a Spielbergian family adventure (as it was marketed by Netflix) may be bored by the relatively low dramatic stakes, and those hoping for a philosophical deep dive may be annoyed by the borderline cheesy blockbuster elements. Even with a 135-minute runtime, most characters and themes are inevitably less fleshed out than they are in the novel, and other filmmakers might have condensed the story further in order to make something that feels more complete on its own.
That said, a small crowd of defenders (myself included) would argue that the looseness of genre and structure is what makes it so interesting. I’d go as far as to say that a White Noise adaptation that tied itself together in an elegant and satisfying manner would not be an adaptation of White Noise at all. Give Noah Baumbach 80 million dollars, and he’ll make one of the strangest and most ambitious movies of the year and of his entire filmography. Maybe it’s just noise; maybe it’s a cult classic awaiting its cult.