White Noise

Jack Gladney (a paunchy Adam Driver with a receding hairline) enjoys a career as the U.S.’s first professor of Hitler studies at Ohio’s College-on-the-Hill and is happily married to his fourth wife, Babbette (Greta Gerwig).  They live with the youngest children of their combined households as well as their own child together, Wilder, in a cacophony of everyday “White Noise.”

Laura's Review: C

Beginning with the montage of Hollywood car crashes that Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) gleefully tells his students express innocence and fun, writer/director Noah Baumbach ("Marriage Story") foreshadows a beaut of his own in his second act that is anything but.  Divided into the same three parts as the 1985 Don DeLillo novel (Waves and Radiation, The Airborne Toxic Event and Dylarama), Baumbach’s adaptation suffers much the same fate as its source material.  While often insightful, frequently hilarious and, for 1985, surprisingly prescient, “White Noise” became repetitive in its themes and plodded to its finale.  The film version also suffers inconsistent acting styles within its ensemble, the adults very mannered while the kids are refreshingly realistic.

The first act introduces us to the players, Jack arriving home in the academic black robe he favors to tell ‘Baba’ she’s missed ‘The Day of the Station Wagons,’ the long line of vehicles which students are delivered to the school in (and another foreshadowing of act two).  The family kitchen is a hive of activity, everyone talking over one another, Baba’s pondering of a healthy lunch option affectionately eye-rolled by her children.  But when Baba slips a pill into her mouth and then secretes the empty bottle at the bottom of the trash, her daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy, "The Killing of a Sacred Deer") is watching like a hawk.

Babbette’s secretive pill taking will be a major thread throughout the film.  Jack prizes his fourth marriage for its open confidences and will become unmoored by what he learns.  And yet it will also drive him, in act three, to procure the commercially unavailable, experimental drug for himself once he learns that its purpose is to alleviate the fear of death, a fear that is exacerbated by act two’s ‘airborne toxic event.’

Baumbach’s adaptation works best as it transitions between its first two acts.  Murray aspires to his best friend’s pop culture success and so asks Jack to ‘drop in’ as he lectures on his chosen subject, Elvis.  As they crisscross the classroom, meeting in the middle as they trade observations about the maternal influences on Elvis and Hitler, Baumbach crosscuts to the impending collision of a train bearing toxic chemicals and a truck bearing flammable liquid.  Now the Gladneys’ Heinrich (Sam Nivola, with sister May playing Stefie) steps into the limelight, monitoring the plume that becomes the airborne toxic event that Jack and Baba attempt to fluff over with her chili fried chicken dinner until changing media accounts and an evacuation loudspeaker redirect their behavior.  The line of cars stretching out of their neighborhood onto the highway recalls both the students’ arrival and Godard’s “Weekend.”  The family peering out of their station wagon at the passing toxic mass is downright Spielbergian in its sense of awe.  A later mishap that finds their car plummeting into a creek is right out of a National Lampoon Vacation movie.

Fear of death becomes the prominent factor moving forward, a Simuvac Technician (Gideon Glick, TV's 'The Other Two') informing Jack his exposure while gassing up the car is bad, if seemingly subjective, news.  But the search for the genesis of Baba’s Dylar and her confession about how she’s procured it lead the film into an increasingly dour place (and one major change from the source material), only enlivened by a late appearance by Barbara Sukowa as a most irreverent German nun and the infamous credit rollout A&P dance to LCD Soundsystem's original song 'New Body Rumba.'  Even Danny Elfman’s orchestral and electronic score begins to turn on itself, too much a contrast with what we’re viewing in the last act.

“White Noise” works in fits and starts, but the film increasingly becomes a chore to endure.

Netflix opens "White Noise in NY and LA on 11/25/22, expanding on 12/2.  It will begin streaming on 12/30/22.