Year:  2022

Director:  Noah Baumbach

Rated:  M

Release:  In cinemas now, Netflix on December 30, 2022

Distributor: Netflix

Running time: 135 minutes

Worth: $13.00
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Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Nivola, Jodie Turner-Smith, Andre L. Benjamin, Sam Gold, Carlos Jacott, Lars Eidinger, Francis Jue, Barbara Sukowa, Bill Camp

In a supreme application of irony White Noise ends up being all sound and fury, signifying nothing

In 1985, Don DeLillo published White Noise, which has become the preeminent postmodern novel. A biting satire about American neuroses, niche academia, the proliferation of meaningless signs and symbols, the consistent ways society tries to distract itself from material reality, and the propensity for Americans to value consumerism as a new god.

Noah Baumbach’s ambitious adaptation of the novel embraces DeLillo’s themes and keeps the mid-eighties setting, but the satire is toothless today, with the audience used to post-truth realities.

Jack (J.A.K.) Gladney (Adam Driver) is a middle-aged college professor specialising in Hitler Studies – despite not actually being able to speak German. He’s a campus rock star, with his flowing academic robes and blue-tinged glasses. Students sit in rapt attention as he delivers context-less lectures about the Third Reich. He has his fans in the College-On-The-Hill academic department, notably Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), who is hoping that Jack will support his bid to become the preeminent Elvis scholar, “Elvis is my Hitler,” he says. In an amusing back and forth lecture between the two, they end up creating tenuous connections between Adolf and Elvis (they both liked dogs and their mothers) that highlights the absurdity of specialist academia.

Jack lives with his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig in an impressive Greta wig) and their blended family – both Jack and Babette are on their fourth marriages. Four kids live in the never silent house; Heinrich (Sam Nivola), Steffie (May Nivola) both from Jack’s previous marriages, Denise (Raffey Cassidy), Babette’s daughter, and Wilder, who is the couple’s shared son.

Heinrich plays chess with an imprisoned felon; Denise is an avid reader with her head in medical textbooks trying to find out about a drug she suspects is causing Babette to lose her memory – the kids are witty and clever, spitting out factoids over one another (is anybody listening to anyone else? The same can be said of Jack’s academic colleagues who make pointed but ultimately meaningless observations about the world).

What brings the family together are regular trips to the recently opened consumerist temple, the A&P Supermarket.

The first section of the film, which mirrors DeLillo’s novelistic structure, is named ‘Waves & Radiation’ and sets up the unending white noise that follows Jack and his family. In the second section, ‘The Airborne Toxic Event’, the genre shifts into a Baudrillardian science fiction. A truck crashes into a train carrying a toxic agent. Although the family can see the pillar of smoke (which changes names according to whatever the media decides it should be called), Heinrich and Jack refuse to take the event seriously until they’re told to.

Eventually, the family have to evacuate, which leads to a prolonged sequence of them stuck on a highway in their station wagon, headed to an evacuation site run by SIMUVAC who are using the evacuation as a simulation for a real evacuation. A computer analysis tells Jack that he will probably die from contact with the toxic smoke, but when that will be, or how it will manifest, is nebulous at best.

Multiple levels of absurdism penetrate the mid-section of the film. From Heinrich becoming a sudden attraction to the evacuees with his “information”, to a man played by Bill Camp holding a television above his head proclaiming that it’s wrong that there are no news channels talking about the event (there are no news channels available) – so if the television isn’t talking about it, is it actually happening?

The film references one of Murray Siskind’s lectures on car crashes in cinema, which opened the film. In Murray’s lecture, he extols the joy and American exceptionalism of the cinematic car crash – America is always creating new ways to better the last example. On the road, there are actual car crashes and people can’t help but look, yet they’re not really seeing the horror of death.

The third section, ‘Dylarama’, is the weakest section of the film. Back at home, Jack and Babette go back to discussing their existential dread. Eventually, Babette admits that she has been taking a drug called Dylar that is supposed to erase the fear of death. She narrates to Jack what she’s been doing to secure the drug, which isn’t even working for her. Jack can’t help but try to shape her narrative into a cohesive academic thesis – he’s often so concerned about the language she’s using that he is ignoring what she is saying.

Jack finally tells Babette that he is dying from the toxic exposure and tries to get her to give him the drug that she has since thrown away. It all leads to an eventual confrontation with the disgraced pharmaceutical researcher (Lars Eidinger) who tried to test the drug, and who pops the pills like candy, developing a kind of language aphasia where he cannot distinguish between words spoken and real events happening. It all ends up in a hospital filled with German nuns who don’t believe in God.

Baumbach’s work is overlong and messy. He does his best to remain true to DeLillo’s novel, but despite the best efforts of the cast, the whole thing feels ironically like a simulation of a film. Between Lol Crawley’s hyper-coloured cinematography and Jess Gonchor’s excellent production design, there is an appealing texture to the movie. Danny Elfman’s score is knowing and winking at the audience; however, this all gets tiring. Trope after trope is introduced, and while that is Baumbach’s intention, the less cinema-literate crowd will just see boring repetition.

It’s ironic that the best scene in the film is the end credits, where the cast play out a superbly choregraphed musical set piece located in the vibrant aisles of the A&P Supermarket. It’s here that we can appreciate the casting of André L. Benjamin (Andre 3000) and Jodie Turner-Smith. (It’s canny of LCD Soundsystem to get Netflix to cough up $80 million to have a film clip for ‘New Body Rhumba’ directed by Baumbach.)

White Noise tries hard to replicate the satire of DeLillo’s novel, but Baumbach’s script is variably too obvious or oblivious. “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots,” Jack says in one of his lectures. White Noise dies and is revived several times. In a supreme application of irony, White Noise ends up being all sound and fury, signifying nothing (or to be fair, signifying little).

Baumbach’s foray into a non-original screenplay is a colourful disappointment – better he had stuck with mining his autobiography for material instead.