‘White Noise’ review: Noah Baumbach creates a new American soundtrack with his ambitious adaptation of Don DeLillo’s iconic novel [B+] | NYFF
When the pandemic hit the U.S., my fear of death oddly became most apparent when I would venture out to the grocery store. Strange, I know, but what was once a place of calm–where I reveled in the organization and made decisions in the moment–suddenly became a tense place that I would only frequent if necessary. At that time, essential businesses like grocery stores were the places where the bad behavior of our neighbors with their masks under their noses and our societal failures seemed most visible. As I would rush through the store, now trying to just get in and get out, I realized that we were unprepared for catastrophe and that I, like the characters in White Noise, felt unprepared for death.
Don DeLillo’s postmodern masterwork, White Noise, and Noah Baumbach’s clever new adaptation utilize familiar locations like grocery stores, classrooms, and a kitchen table–places to congregate and consume–to reveal ideologies and fixations. The film opens with Murray J. Siskind (Don Cheadle), a professor entranced by American icons (namely Elvis Presley), enthusiastically lecturing students on the excitement and “American optimism” of car crashes. He has a wide-eyed fascination with the spectacle of death, and his students seem to agree. Meanwhile, Professor of Hitler Studies, J.A.K. (Jack) Gladney (Adam Driver), observes the glorious order of the shimmering station wagons arriving in a line on the first day of school at College-On-The-Hill, an idyllic liberal arts college in Ohio. No car crashes here, just a group of students and their parents participating in the same ritual. Jack finds comfort in order and like-mindedness, seemingly drawing him to Hitler Studies in the first place. This scene in the film is exactly how I imagined it when I read the novel. Baumbach and cinematographer Lol Crawley even deploy a Scorsese-esque god’s eye view shot over the station wagons to display that even in the most orderly situations, something more significant may be looming, ready to throw the characters’ lives into chaos.
The first section of the film, “Waves and Radiation,” gives us a little tease of everyday life before the chaos intensifies from typical to terrifying. Here, in an Altman-style moment of crosstalk, we meet Jack’s family, including his fourth wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) and their four shared children from previous marriages. This talky way to establish exposition and tone is also apt because someone is always speaking in the Gladney home. Whether one of their children is sharing an utterly irrelevant fact or fear, or a news anchor is detailing a plane crash on television, noise fills the void. Here, Baumbach and his sound team create their own cinematic white noise, combining the character’s dialogue, Danny Elfman’s mood-perfect score, and the whirring and humming of everyday objects.
DeLillo describes Jack as a man who “had the advantages of substantial height, big hands, big feet,” so naturally, the internet’s favorite large boyfriend and Baumbach-staple Adam Driver was the only choice to embody our protagonist. As Jack, Driver beautifully grasps the specific wry sense of humor, philosophical cadence, and mannerisms of the character. When he takes part in what feels like a part collaboration-part academic duel with Murray, Driver showcases his remarkable ability to lean into the physicality of his characters. It’s something he’s utilized since his early days as an actor (Season One of Girls), but when paired with the absurdist dialogue in this scene, it’s particularly gripping. Driver also has a natural chemistry with Gerwig. As someone who moved to New York partly because of Frances Ha, I was delighted to see Gerwig and Driver back together on screen. What can feel like a surreal, abstract character in the novel feels more grounded and relatable due to Gerwig’s warmth and comedic timing. As Babette, she gives to her children but withholds her secrets, making her the film’s most compelling character. When we meet Murray again at the grocery store, Cheadle delivers one of the best lines of dialogue, “she has important hair.” Babette’s perm, which will undoubtedly be turned into a meme when this hits Netflix in December, warrants the inclusion of this favorite line.
In this section, too, we experience that magnificent, absurdly clean grocery store. The bright and shiny production design, with its unnatural primary colors and ’80s-inspired exaggerated product placement, draw tempting comparisons to other Netflix hits, but here, it’s both ironic and purposeful. Baumbach and his crew understood the necessity of creating a cinematic language that feels like a direct extension of DeLillo’s prose. There is something uncanny and artificial about the spaces and design that makes the world of the film feel familiar while also completely disconnected from reality as we know it. It is also the brightest, most colorful version of Ohio we have ever seen on screen.
The second section of the film, “The Airborne Toxic Event,” is visually the boldest stretch in Baumbach’s filmography. The Airborne Toxic Event, a large black cloud caused by a spill of toxic waste, is massive in scope and Spielbergian in design. It is here that Baumbach spends most of his time (and his largest budget yet) expanding the text for genuine cinematic thrills. It feels like Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets National Lampoon’s Vacation–something I would never expect from Baumbach but that I enthusiastically welcomed. This section is also the most likely to draw comparisons to the COVID-19 pandemic. The characters are flooded with signals and misinformation and continue to fear death. When a SIMULVAC (simulated evacuation) employee tells Jack that he’s eventually going to die because of his two and a half minutes of exposure to the cloud, it feels like it was ripped from our current moment.
When a novel is as beloved as White Noise, purists will inevitably lament certain decisions by the screenwriter adapting the source material. While Baumbach remains faithful to the text and has a keen grasp on the tone, some of his omissions feel puzzling, specifically, “The Most Photographed Barn in America.” This short but often-cited bit of the novel feels remarkably prescient as it captures the obsession with passing a landmark and feeling the need to take a photo. It can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity, as audiences today are more pressed than ever to capture every moment rather than genuinely feel it.
However, it’s also understandable that a filmmaker might hesitate to change too much of a beloved, genre-defining novel. The screenplay could have gone even further to capture the current moment. While the book is both timely to 1985 and timeless, the direct adaptation of specific sections of the script feels like a time capsule instead of a creative spin on today’s environment. The comparisons to COVID-19 are excellent and hard-hitting, but I’m not sure how well specific references like “Hitler Studies” work as satire in 2022. In 1985, Jack’s professions drew on current fears, but today it frighteningly isn’t out of the question that a college would try to install this sort of department. I can practically see the Fox News chyron now. The humor has less bite when the satirical reference point feels too real for the current moment and less abstract than when originally penned.
The final section, “Dylarama,” forces Babette to reveal the secrets hidden in that important hair. In an extended emotional monologue, she shares that she’s been secretly taking an experimental, off-market drug called “Dylar.” Why? Because she fears death. This section is tricky and can feel like a completely different film than the first two sections, which may vex some viewers. Because this section is about coming to terms with your death and facing it head-on, the levity of the first two sections is replaced by a strong sense of melancholy. Baumbach keeps it surprising, turning it into a noir-inspired stretch where Jack and Babette lose each other only to find each other again. After the meanness of films like The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story, Baumbach attempts to show something far more romantic here. Critiques on marriage are still present (they are each other’s fourth spouse, after all), but Baumbach seems to see something more positive in partnership for the first time in his films. Even after the absurd turmoil that compounds in this section, Jack and Babette still have each other.
White Noise presents a bizarre soundtrack of American life with its cultural references to icons and products in the dialogue and the constant buzz of background noise. It’s only fitting then that the film should end with a brand new song from LCD Soundsystem and a choreographed dance number through the grocery store’s aisles. While the adaptation is primarily faithful, the end credits sequence is wholly original. It connects to the novel’s most powerful theme as the characters dance through bright, sparkling aisles filled with consumer goods to a new death anthem. We can only hope that Netflix does not prompt viewers to skip the credits and move on to the next film or series when they finish.
As I turned on my white noise app to go to sleep, the film’s title crept back into my head. Why is it that we find comfort in background noise? Maybe it’s the same reason that the characters in the film do. The cacophony from the chaos distracts them, and they can avoid death and their fear of it for a moment if everything is just buzzing. The irony isn’t lost on me then that this new adaptation that includes anti-consumerism as one of its most vital themes begins with the Netflix logo. Streaming services have become white noise machines, with home viewers admitting that they need something to put on in the background or a “second screen movie” so they won’t miss much when they’re on their phones. It’s ironic (and somewhat bleak) to think that Baumbach’s big swing of an adaptation could be switched on one day as someone is cleaning their apartment or working from home. The themes and witty lines of dialogue may have to be absorbed in the same way that an M&Ms commercial would be to the Gladneys in the ’80s. Maybe the power of Baumbach’s new film is that he proved that the novel is, in fact, filmable. That is, only if it’s financed by a company whose subscribers will unknowingly prove DeLillo’s thesis, inadvertently turning the film into more white noise.
Netflix will release White Noise in select theaters on November 25 and then stream it globally on December 30.
Photo: Wilson Webb/Netflix