White Noise Review: Noah Baumbach Makes Blaze Of Dark Comedy In Venice Opening
The incredibly elegant film White Noise, directed by Noah Baumbach and based on Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel of the same name, is a deadpan comedy of catastrophization and a reflection on western wealth and its ills, including its fears of intellectual satiety.
It’s a sensual end-of-the-world fantasy built on the presumption that nothing could ever go wrong—or could it? Could it be that our worries about ecological calamity aren’t motivated by logical preventative actions but rather by irrational occult concerns and superstitious life insurance policies?
Filmmakers have been hankering after DeLillo’s rambunctious and funny novel of ideas for almost 40 years (Emma Cline even wrote a short story called White Noise in 2020 about Harvey Weinstein hoping to reclaim respectability by making a DeLillo movie.) Baumbach has caught a big white whale with his adaptation, which is very smart and well done.
His movie highlights the book’s depth as a historical work that relates to the zeitgeistiness of postmodernism on American campuses, as well as how prophetic it is about the anxieties of the present. The “airborne toxic event” and COVID’s lockdown feel like an address to them, as does the dread of the American suburban heartland in the face of the pandemic’s uncomfortable, normalizing adjustments.
Additionally, it concerns a preoccupation with the increasingly widespread access to information and its interpretation, as well as the availability of facts that appear to be equally reliable but reveal the reverse. The fizz of poor television reception, which gives rise to conspiracy theories and fake news, is this white noise of ersatz actuality. It is a granular, formless fog. When I initially started reading the book, I was reminded of what we used to do as children: put our faces very close to the TV when a show was on so we could only see the small pixels.
Adam Driver portrays Jack Gladney, a middle-aged liberal arts professor from the Midwest. He is given what I initially believed to be a phony pot belly, but in one scene in his doctor’s waiting room, he takes off his shirt to expose a paunch. Both divorcees, he and Babette, played by Greta Gerwig, are the parents of a rambunctious family of frustratingly immature kids and stepkids.
Jack is America’s foremost expert in the bizarrely absurd field of “Hitler Studies” (Gladney does not understand German), an ahistorical method of dissecting Hitler’s iconography without being overwhelmed by or even necessarily being aware of the tragic and horrifying context. The tale predicts, among other things, the “end of history,” which would be momentarily and stylishly celebrated in the West with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Don Cheadle plays Murray Siskind, Jack’s coworker who wants to accomplish for Elvis what Jack did for Hitler. In a major set piece, the two men offer a clever analysis of both Elvis and Hitler at the same time. It is flippant and provocative. Slavoj Iek cannot be compared to these individuals.
Jack and Babette are content in an unsettling way, which is dramatized by classic cinema scenes where they visit the dreamy, emotionless enormous supermarket that also serves as the backdrop for the exquisitely staged ending credits.
But Jack is concerned. Babette exhibits signs of what might be early-onset dementia and appears to be dependent on the strange drug Dylar, empty bottles of which frequently turn up in the trash. Without Google, Jack and his kids are left with no choice but to consult their medical textbooks and ask their academic peers what on earth “Dylar” is and what its risks are. (Pre-YouTube, children become fixated on and eagerly await news footage of plane crashes.)
Then comes the big collision: a train carrying volatile toxic trash collides with a truck carrying seas of gasoline, resulting in an environmental catastrophe. (We’ve already seen Murray give a hilarious lecture about how the car accident genre in American film is primarily lighthearted.) They have to leave their homes because of the poisonous cloud that forms, and as they are leaving, the station wagon floats down a swollen river in a beautiful, fantastical scene.
Jack is still exposed to airborne poisons as a result of this strange freak incident, which he learns about via frustratingly unreliable sources and which could potentially kill him in a few decades. Whether it is accurate or not, Jack has come to terms with the fact that he will pass away. Babette is also concerned about dying alone.
Death, the only unavoidable reality among all the rumor and speculation, is the film’s level of seriousness below the campus crisis and the marriage comedy. The people in the movie are both terrified of death and cling on to it as the only source of certainty in their lives.
Despite all the Spielbergian family talk in the kitchen, Jack and Babette’s weird lives, which are a knight’s move away from reality, are too strange to be sympathized with. However, they are there to be admired.
White Noise- A Quick Overview
- Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
- Distribution: Netflix
- Production companies: NBGG Pictures, Heyday Films, in association with A24
- Cast: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Nivola, Jodie Turner-Smith, André L. Benjamin, Lars Eidinger, Sam Gold, Carlos Jacott, Francis Jue, Barbara Sukowa
- Director-screenwriter: Noah Baumbach, based on the novel by Don DeLillo
- Producers: Noah Baumbach, David Heyman, Uri Singer
- Executive producers: Brian Bell, Leslie Converse
- Director of photography: Lol Crawley
- Production designer: Jess Gonchor
- Costume designer: Ann Roth
- Music: Danny Elfman
- Editor: Matthew Hannam
- Casting: Douglas Aibel
- Duration: 2 hours 16 minutes