Writer director Noah Baumbach’s newest film, the follow up to 2019’s Marriage Story is fascinated by death, the fragile of life is and mortality. In fact, the film, titled White Noise, which Baumbach adapted from the novel of the same name by author Don DeLillo opens with a monologue about car crashes in entertainment mediums. As humans it’s in our nature to be curious, so right away Baumbach makes a play for our undivided attention by using disaster as the films crutch. And whether we like to admit it or not, no matter what the catastrophe is, we stop everything we’re doing to watch the disaster – we can’t get enough, even stopping something as fluid as moving traffic on a parkway.
Death is the center of gravity that White Noise is built up around. Its main characters obsess over dying and subsequently what will happen to the widow throughout the narrative which is the most vague the plot can be described in. Following a blended family consisting of Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a professor of Hitler studies, his fourth wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) and their children Denise (Raffey Cassidy), Heinrich (Sam Nivola), Steffie (May Nivola), and Wilder (Henry and Dean Moore), the family is tested by forces beyond their control.
Told in 3 chapters, White Noise immediately becomes overpowered by its annoyingly static name sake. Dialogue is jumbled together making it impossible to distinguish or latch on to the heavy themes Baumbach is adapting. However, the individual performances that the ensemble cast give are worth the frenzy. Reuniting together after Marriage Story is Driver and Baumbach. Driver has become that chameleon performer, committing to the role set aside for him to get lost in. With his comedic timing, the satirical nature of Jack is able to poke through the academia persona. Jack is an expert in Hitler studies, a field he invented yet speaks no German, even getting tutored in the language. The irony explodes off the screen.
Opposite Driver stands Greta Gerwig perfectly balancing the calmness of Driver’s Jack. Babette slowly becomes more unhinged as the film slowly progresses and Gerwig commands the spotlight in her performance. She plays paranoid, gullible and insecure with zero effort, adding more depth and nuance to a film that struggles to develop any with its writing. The other standout comes by way of colleague Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), a friend to Jack looking to create a niche field for Elvis like Jack has for Hitler. Cheadle, whatever the role brings charisma and confidence to each scene, complimenting both Driver and Gerwig.
The first chapter sets up the exposition – introducing the characters that the plot would soon follow. It’s in chapter 2 that the meat and potatoes unfolds, slowly with most of its focus on style while substance is given the table scraps. Not much of the plot happens in a timely manner, making the films 136-minute length overstay its welcome. The themes of death and mortality do play a major role in chapter two. To not give any spoilers away, characters are forced to come to terms with the inevitability of death, trying to stop it or slow it down by way of a holistic cultural approach.
And by chapter 3, Baumbach brings the film full circle, reestablishing an early sub-plot, carrying it to the finish line.
Outside of a scene here and there, White Noise ends up being a thief of time, crippled by its ambitious nature. Stoic and strict rather than poignant and relaxed. It’s been said at nauseum that this is Baumbach’s most ambitious film to date and it’s with the ambition that Baumbach loses whatever grip he has on this film. Waiting for anything significant to happen to the characters created by Don DeLillo is off the table – structure of the film slows the momentum down having to build up any lost momentum once a new chapter starts. White Noise is triumphant in its themes of obsession, death and consumerism and how they are presented in a relatable way.
Beyond a frantically all over the place script, the production value thrives in its vintage aesthetic. Everything from the bright variety of colors in the carefully constructed A&P supermarket to the stylish costume, hair and make-up, White Noise technically is masterful. Lol Crawley’s cinematography puts you right in the eye of the storm – whether its facing death head on or dealing with a man-made catastrophe and the response to the chaos.
I find it slightly ironic that the novel White Noise released a year before the Chernobyl disaster – one of the most famous man-made disasters that could have been avoided yet shrouded in conspiracy – exactly what Baumbach captures the same chaos when ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ picks up steam. Above all else, lies and disinformation can destroy a society, quicker than a disaster can.
Overall, White Noise never gets its footing set although it’s attempting to climb the highest peak possible the expectation becomes it’s undoing. Anchored by its performances and dense themes, Baumbach’s adaptation shifts tones constantly creating a convoluted mess that you would rather forget it exists than try to make any sense of it and attempt to clean up. Baumbach’s direction should be commended as the saving grace with a stellar score by Danny Elfman rounding out the clear strengths White Noise has going for it.
Screenplay By: Noah Baumbach
Directed By: Noah Baumbach
Music By: Danny Elfman
Cinematography: Lol Crawley
Starring: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Nivola, Jodie Turner-Smith, Andre Benjamin, Sam Gold
Where to Watch: Netflix
Release Date: November 25, 2022
Running Time: 2 Hours 16 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 63%
Based On: White Noise by Don DeLillo