Written by: Noah Baumbach
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Driver; Greta Gerwig; Don Cheadle
White Noise is a movie with a lot going on. Just when you think the story is about to end it finds new batteries and keeps going. Shifting through multiple themes, genres and tones, this sprawling exploration of social and existential anxiety features a lot of the elements that have made Noah Baumbach a uniquely observant filmmaker, but it also finds him stretched as he tries to cover so much ground in a reasonable amount of time.
Baumbach’s third film for Netflix (following his Oscar-winning Marriage Story and the ensemble family drama The Meyerowitz Stories) is an adaptation of a 1985 Don DeLillo novel the cognoscenti have deemed “un-filmable.” With its potpourri of themes and an assortment of characters frazzled by their own fears, quirks and suspicions, White Noise is absurdist, complicated comedy that requires a fine directorial touch. Baumbach needs to be more of a sound engineer as he searches for the right mix, moving all sorts of dials as he balances big set pieces, tricky dialogue and nuanced characters — all while perpetuating this frenzied climate of angst that feels maybe too real.
Split into three distinct acts and rolling the clock back to the 1980s, the film follows an upper-middle-class family in suburban Ohio as they try to deal with life in upheaval following a local disaster. The first forty-ish minutes lay out the pieces of a family dynamic that is both hectic and strangely stable (for a Baumbach movie). Patriarch Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is a college professor with a dubiously specific area of focus who spends much of his day basking in the company of his fellow intellectuals, particularly amused by the poetic and quite possibly psychotic diatribes of Murray Siskind (a scene-stealing Don Cheadle), a so-called expert on American culture who just may spin off the planet one day with his crackpot theories.
Jack descends from this high throne each day and happily embraces the chaos at home with his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), a postural therapist, and their four children. They’ve both been married multiple times before and run their marriage with a blunt honesty that manifests most memorably in their morbid pillow talk. Heinrich (Sam Nivola) and Steffie (May Nivola) are Jack’s, while Denise (Raffey Cassidy) is Babette’s and their youngest son, Wilder, they conceived together. The blended family dynamic means there’s never a dull moment and questions about the world around them abound — especially when Heinrich, who’s always on top of current events, begins hearing radio reports of a toxic chemical spill that could affect the entire area.
A major but well-handled transition leads into what feels like a different movie altogether, not to mention a total departure from anything resembling the chatterbox pictures the writer/director has built his career on. Fortunately Baumbach has his two most reliable commodities in Driver and Gerwig to help steer the way. The seasoned actors never seem fazed by the challenge, even when their characters are beginning to lose it. The so-named “airborne toxic event” prompts an evacuation and the
Griswolds Gladneys load up in the family station wagon, soon swept up in the confusion and herded through a series of disorienting events that include makeshift quarantine sites, car chases through the woods (one of the best and funniest scenes by far) and strange encounters with a creepy, balding man whose face the camera can’t quite find.
White Noise is a long and meandering film — a low-key odyssey that, despite its chameleonic genre shifts, always stays anxious, always stays weird. Yet what has been for the most part entertainingly bizarre becomes more laborious down the final stretch as the story again reshapes into something more intimate and its core themes become crystallized. Everyone has been allowed to return home but life has not exactly returned to normal. The air may have cleared but the lingering effects of a traumatic event have infiltrated the house. Suddenly we’re stalking out seedy motel rooms and being treated by atheist nuns in a paranoia-fueled thriller that grows like a tumor off the main narrative. It’s the least convincing stretch of story by a muddy-river mile.
On the whole, Baumbach succeeds in adapting someone else’s work without sacrificing his own idiosyncratic style. Ironically it’s in a passage where things are falling apart where he too seems to lose his grip. But he merges together so many concepts and pulls together three-dimensional characters such that these moments feel more like hiccups than major hang-ups. White Noise is messy, but it’s a colorful mess.
Moral of the Story: Those who are already acclimated to the filmmaker’s unique style (specifically the way he writes dialogue and characters) will probably have an easier time navigating through White Noise‘s many and complicated movements. It’s an audacious movie that can be just as interesting in its blockbuster-y moments as it is when roaming the grocery store aisles. A uniquely whacky experience.
Running Time: 136 mins.
Quoted: “There are two kinds of people in this world, killers and diers. Most of us are diers.”
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