White Noise

“What would happen if Noah Baumbach got $100 million to make a movie?” is a question that, more likely than not, you’d expect to stay as a hypothetical. Thanks to Netflix, this thought exercise becomes a reality, with White Noise, Baumbach’s epically-sculpted adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel that won the National Book Award in 1985. Anyone who’s read the book could see how its rigorous acumen and scathing humor (masking a deep vulnerability) could be translated by Baumbach, whose films have always teetered between absurdist humor and violent hostility. White Noise, the book and the film, has a palpable disdain for Middle American complacency; not exactly uncharted territory, but its still surprising to see the success to which Baumbach brings this eccentric, elaborate world to life.

This is as far a departure from Baumbach’s previous films as can be, and his fidelity to DeLillo’s prose shows an eagerness to break away from the smaller, personal stories that detailed the previous twenty-five years of his career. Perhaps he was tired of dodging accusations of auto-fictional score-settling throughout his scripts. No doubt his Oscar breakthrough in 2019’s Marriage Story convinced Netflix to lay out the budgetary runway in order for Baumbach to accomplish this. Say what you will about the business model of Netflix (I’ll say it: it’s bad), between this movie and Bardo, they’ve proven to be a studio that does not interfere with the indulgences of their stable of directors. One can quibble with that approach, but as in BardoWhite Noise succeeds because it is completely unburdened by oversight or restriction.

The story takes place in the fictional Ohio school College-on-the-Hill, whose star professor is Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), the preeminent scholar of “Hitler Studies”, a department and field that he founded. The rest of College-on-the-Hill’s staff looks up to Jack in wonder at his status and presence. Jack’s wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), hosts exercise courses for the elderly but mostly she plays housewife, to their four children. The pedantic teenager Heinrich (Sam Nivola) is Jack’s from his first marriage, the frosty Denise (Raffey Cassidy) is Babette’s from her second marriage, and the precocious Steffie (May Nivola) is Jack’s from his third marriage. A toddler named Wilder is the only one of their very own. The Gladneys live a normal if occasionally tempestuous existence, until the arrival of an Airborne Toxic Event, which turns life upside down.

Like DeLillo’s book, the film White Noise makes itself out to be an absurdist disaster movie but a lot of what you think the movie may end up being about is actually a red herring. The story’s larger existential points play out among Jack and Babette, whose marriage presents outwardly as stable but in reality is plagued by distrust and insecurity. Babette is always forgetting things, while Jack is plagued by unknown dread. When Denise tells Jack that Babette is taking a pill called Dylar, Jack goes into full-blown detective mode to try and figure out what drug his wife is taking that makes her act so strange. Amidst the ATE and the resulting chaos, Jack finds himself traveling deeper into the heart of darkness, as hidden truths come to light and the Gladneys are made to face harsh realities they’ve done so well to avoid in the past.

Baumbach perfectly translates DeLillo’s sardonic dialogue into his tommy gun, screwball cadence, and he highlights the book’s ridiculousness with inspired visual gags. I’ve always been a huge fan of Baumbach’s sandpaper humor, and White Noise gives him a big enough canvas to showcase his talents on a way larger scale. It’s hard to imagine that those unfamiliar with the idiosyncratic novel will enjoy much of this – even book fans might find themselves alienated by Baumbach’s unfiltered interpretation. One recalls Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, whose current status as a cult classic might lead some to forget the wholesale box office rejection on its initial release. White Noise was never a film made for commercial appeal, which might make it perfect for Netflix, a place where bad box office isn’t the no. 1 story. But I found this film hilarious and delightful, an entertaining blend of two furiously creative minds.


Written for the Screen and Directed by Noah Baumbach