By Matthew Moorcroft
- Directed by Noah Baumbach
- Starring Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy
I’ve never read Don DeLillo’s White Noise. In fact, my only prior experience with DeLillo in general is through David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Cosmopolis, which I found to be one of Cronenberg’s more unique and hard to decipher works. This is mostly a long winded way of saying that Noah Baumbach’s version of the story, which is the final result of several directors and writers trying to get the long-gestating project off the ground, is my first experience with this heady tale.
White Noise is complicated. It’s an immensely dense, sometimes purposefully unfulfilling work, forcing viewers to mostly come to their own conclusions and feels like Baumbach trying to, sometimes in vain, do something completely different then what he is normally known for. Baumbach’s brand of family neurosis reached it’s peak back with 2019’s absolutely fantastic Marriage Story, so it’s obvious that he would want to try something more ambitious and out there for his next feature.
The result is bizarre mix of Spielbergian tension, Truffant absurdism, and Baumbach’s own sensibilities, and it works about 80% of the time. For the first half of this, it’s particularly effective, as Baumbach decides to do the closest thing to a blockbuster that he likely ever make and it’s really compelling stuff. From the way it’s shot to Danny Elfman’s return to form, this feels as old school as old school gets; the thrills here are effective and while the dry comedy won’t work for everybody it’s got some great moments of levity within the mayhem and nihilism. The impeccable production design help sell this, with the 80s setting brought to life with stunning accuracy and an eye for details in the little things. This may have also the best looking supermarket put to film in some time, which is punctuated by a final segment that is easily the highlight of the film.
But despite those thrills in the first half, it’s the precise, post-modern dialogue that really pops out to the forefront here. A montage that juxtaposes a train crash with a discussion about Hitler, Elvis, and mother figures is the best example of this, and it’s both Baumbach flexing his excellent writing chops while also leaning into his wicked sense of editing as well. All of this in service of one of the film’s many ideas – which is the rise of cultural artifacts through the lens of how we approach daily life. Meaning in nothing. A life avoiding the thought of our inevitable demise.
The second half goes into a decidedly different direction, however, though it remains enjoyable. I can’t fault Baumbach too much for this, but it’s possible the novel’s bizarre structure lent itself weakly to film, or at the very least his style. The unraveling family dynamic should have been his time to shine, but instead it feels counterproductive at points and losing it’s initial message. Adam Driver makes the best of it with a great, pretty tuned down performance, but even his natural charisma can only carry a film this dry so far.
Maybe it’s just possible the heady ideas were over my head this time around. White Noise is almost opaque on purpose at points, just begging you to scratch your head and throw your arms up in frustration as part of the appeal. If that was the case, I do wish it was at least funnier in those long dialogue stretches, as there are chuckles and a couple of laughs here and there (especially in the first half) but it’s not nearly darkly funny as Baumbach’s stronger work.
I think White Noise is probably destined to become something of a bizarre footnote or detour from his usual career, and that’s kind of a shame. There is a lot to love here in it’s ambition, and seeing Netflix spend $80-100 million on something so weird and bizarre is admirable. It’s just far from Baumbach’s best work, and while it certainly is worth checking out, it’s not the runaway masterpiece that it’s aching to be.