'White Noise' Is Unclear

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Starring Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Nivola, Lars Eidinger

Photo: Wilson Webb / Netflix

BY Mila MatveevaPublished Nov 28, 2022

Noah Baumbach's White Noise, based on the book by Don DeLillo, is the first time the director has worked from someone else's source material, and it's a sometimes-hit, sometimes-miss adaptation. Like the novel, the film is broken up into three acts, part one establishing the quirky Gladney family within an overwhelming 1980s world. Each scene is stuffed with perfectly executed production design touches: sickly colours, YooHoos and Twinkies, as well as wardrobe saturated by the aesthetic that has come to represent the decade.

The heart of the film is Greta Gerwig, in her first on-screen role since 2016's 20th Century Women, who gives a full inner life to Babette, the nervously optimistic fitness instructor and matriarch of the family. She plays opposite another Baumbach favourite, Adam Driver, who plays her husband and lauded Hitler studies professor Jack. This is not either person's first marriage, but they live seemingly harmoniously in their Reagan-era suburb with four precocious children — Denise (Raffey Cassidy), Heinrich (Sam Nivola), Steffie (May Nivola) and toddler Wilder — in expected big-family-with-big-brains chaos. Busy scenes of overlapping dialogue and mannerisms between them emphasize a refrain we will hear multiple times throughout the film, first introduced by Murray Siskind, Jack's oddly chipper friend and colleague, played by Don Cheadle: "Family is the cradle of the world's misinformation." 

Babette is a seeker, with a hidden proclivity for cults and conspiracies, and has been secretly participating in an experimental drug trial that she learned about from the back of a magazine, though she hasn't evaded the suspicion of her eldest daughter, Denise. The drug, Dylar, claims to treat an anxiety and gloom that has clouded Babette's world, but requires a Faustian trade. Meanwhile, Jack maintains a well-regarded reputation among his colleagues and students that parallels the cult of personality he teaches about. The film underlines this when he and Murray give a choreographed, almost musical, performative lecture paralleling the childhoods of Hitler and Elvis, their respective areas of expertise, in a scene that draws attention to itself through technical prowess. 

A paragon of the privileged American family, the Gladneys' obsession with death is a symptom of their ennui. Both adults and children are either running from it or prepping for it, respectively, yet the adults are almost at ease when they hear a diagnosis or death sentence — a confirmation for their anxieties, which manifest into an apocalyptic fantasy. As if watching life play out in a movie, they've figured out the ending and can sit back comfortably.

Though his work requires he face death on a daily basis, Jack, like Babette, is haunted by it, but turns a blind eye when it is staring directly at him in the film's second act as a cataclysmic accident on the outskirts of town creates an "airborne toxic event." The Gladneys are ordered to evacuate in a Home Alone-esque fashion that is a fun and refreshing sequence to see from Baumbach. Just as I was getting strapped in for its final section, White Noise shuffles tone (not the first time) and moves into a more absurd, dark and weirdly fairytale-like underbelly, introducing Arlo (Lars Eidinger) as a perplexing expositional device for Babette and Jack's marriage. 

There are moments that ring hyperreal within a framework that is oftentimes absurd. As the airborne toxic event begins, even a Hitler scholar like Jack is sedate to alarmism and modern living and does not want to disrupt dinner. Lines like, "I love you, but I fear death more than I love you," and the memorably cryptic, "Entering a room is an agreement," seem meaningful, but vanish in a poof of cartoonish cloud smoke. A musical number in an A&P Supermarket set to the new LCD Soundsystem song "new body rhumba" in the end credits seems more celebratory and flat, despite all the ironic winking. These moments pierce the veil of this candy-coated microcosm and feel disjointed, appearing overzealous and not finishing the thought.

One can sense Baumbach's excitement to rope together the film's many themes, which have overlap and connection: consumerism, fear of death, media and violence, the power of suggestion, capitalism as comfort, and everything as capitalism. It invites viewers to consider the terms we agree to daily — for instance, the social contract that we enter into when we "enter each door." But, like grocery shopping on an empty stomach, the film bites off more than it can chew. For all the ambitious new territory Baumbach explores as a director, it doesn't coalesce in the way that is as impactful as White Noise thinks.

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