'White Noise': Noah Baumbach Takes On Existential Dread with Ambitious Comedy
Updated: Jan 5
After making one of the most well-regarded films of his career with 2019's Marriage Story, it is a bit surprising to see Noah Baumbach take on an adaptation of Don DeLillo's breakthough novel, White Noise, as a follow-up to it. Baumbach is best known for his more intimate, straightforward way of storytelling, so him making a more sprawling, perplexing film is a bit of a 180 for him. Furthermore, this film sees him using a much larger budget than he has ever worked with before, which allows him to go bigger and produce something more cinematic than he normally does. But underneath the density of DeLillo's novel, as well as its wider scope and more demanding setpieces, it is clear why Baumbach was drawn to make this film. At its core, the film is rather human, and deals with death, family, and the various ways that we choose to make it through our daily lives, among other things. Baumbach is so gifted when it comes to exploring the human condition, which he continues to demonstrate in this film. However, he is able to stretch himself by making something with a wider scope, and doing his best to bring DeLillo's distinct voice to the screen. It might not always work, and the sheer volume of what the film is dropping on the viewer can be a bit vexing at times, but through it all, Baumbach delivers an expansive, dark comedy that allows him to tread new ground, while also weave in some of his signature style.
Much like DeLillo's novel, White Noise is presented as a triptych that focuses on college professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and his family. Gladney is a professor of Hitler Studies at the fictional College-on-the-Hill, and raises his children and stepchildren with his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig). Throughout the film, Jack is preoccupied with the idea of death. This borderline obsession of his is a throughline that spans all three parts of the film, and is one of the film's most prominent themes. The idea of death and what lies beyond it are at the forefront of most of the film, namely its second part. This part is the centerpiece of the whole film, as it details a horrible train accident that causes a chemical spill that forms a noxious black cloud, referred to as The Airborne Toxic Event over Jack's town and the surrounding area. This section sees Jack confronting the possibility of death directly, and has a ripple effect throughout the rest of the film. The Airborne Toxic Event throws the family into chaos, as they must navigate a world torn asunder, and put the pieces of their lives back together.
The film is multifaceted, and says so much over its runtime. It seeks to be an all-encompassing slice of Americana, detailing a deluge of themes and ideas that have strong ties to the late 20th century. This is also true of the book, but Baumbach's approach is a bit more exhausting, and had me feeling a bit overwhelmed at times. In his defense, that's kind of the point, as it evokes the feeling of being struck by many aspects of life all at once. That's literally what is happening to Jack throughout the film, as we see him dealing with a great number of responsibilities and issues throughout the film. From his job as a professor, to being forced to evacuate his family in the wake of The Airborne Toxic Event, to uncovering the mystery of the strange pills his wife is taking, we see how he deals with the minutiae of everyday life amidst a rapidly changing world. The film's blending of more mundane human issues with larger issues of the late 20th century like consumerism, pollution, and chemical dependencies is pretty effective, as it gives a fuller, more well-rounded view of American life. Granted, it does buckle a bit under the weight of everything being thrown at us, and it is an absurdist take on the matter, but it still has a fair amount of substantial things to say, all things considered.
There are many things that the film is concerned with, but what really struck me is how it explores both consumer culture and how we deal with the difficulties of life. One of the most eye-catching sets in the film is the supermarket where the family buys their groceries. It is brightly lit, features a wide array of colors, and large signs that advertise the deals in the store. It also features a ridiculous amount of product placement, and blatantly signals the rise in consumerism that occurred in the '70s and '80s. The supermarket is presented as this alluring oasis that the characters are transfixed by, and we return to it a few more times over the course of the film. From an aesthetic viewpoint, it's easy to see why it is so enticing, as it is quite beautiful, but when you remember that its literally just a supermarket, the film's clear statement on how consumerism has seeped into our daily lives becomes more obvious. I wouldn't say that the film is subtle in this regard, but it is done quite well nonetheless.
Through the perspectives of the film's characters, we see the supermarket as a bit of an escape from the real world, which is another prime concern of the film. Jack and Babette are both obsessed with death, and we see how each of them cope with this. Jack tends to fixate on it, and finds little escapes through his work and home life. Babette becomes dependent on a drug called Dylar, which Jack and his daughter, Denise (Raffey Cassidy) discover fairly early in the film. In addition to these, and the aforementioned supermarket, the film details how we cope with the hardships of life. Primarily, it focuses on how we deal with the possibility of death, and what we turn to in order to make life bearable. Whether it's drugs, work, academia, family, or any number of things that the film includes, the characters try to avoid their fear of death, but they can never shake it for too long. The film supposes that these escapes don't solve our problems, but they are ways to alleviate some of the pressures of life, whether they are healthy or unhealthy. However, it also shows us that we have become dependent on these distractions, and they have had long lasting effects on our culture.
Perhaps the most potent of the ways we see the characters cope with the looming specter of death is through media and iconography. The film opens with Don Cheadle's character, Murray, giving a lecture at College-on-the-Hill about car crashes in film. In this scene, he talks about why people are so drawn to these moments, which is later highlighted in a scene where Jack's family are entranced by footage of a plane crash on the news. Murray later gives a lecture on Elvis, which delves into the nuts and bolts of the obsession many have with various icons and media. Jack being a professor of Hitler studies is another example of this, as it pokes fun at the specific niche areas of study that have been cropping up in Universities over the past several decades, while also showing the obsession we as people have with various figures in history and pop culture. It satirizes both of these notions, and paints the characters that work at College-on-the-Hill as pseudo-intellectuals who claim to understand some of life's biggest concepts, but are really only knowledgeable when it comes to hyper-specific topics and information. The film mostly shows this in the context of academia, but it also has a more widespread application. Nearly halfway through the film, Jack and his family have been evacuated from their home and are taking refuge at a campground. While they are standing by and waiting for further instructions, Jack's oldest son, Heinrich (Sam Nivola) speaks to a crowd of people who were also forced to evacuate. He talks about The Airborne Toxic Event, and provides well-researched information on the topic. Jack is surprised by this, and looks on with a mix of pride and insecurity in his own knowledge. It shows that the people who claim to be the smartest aren't always the most well-read on what's important, and is a nice jab at the faux-intellectualism that has become more prevalent in our culture.
It's a tall order to try and adapt Don DeLillo for the screen, but Noah Baumbach certainly makes a valiant effort. DeLillo's work is rather dense and several of his novels are considered "unfilmable" by many. Baumbach tries to stay as faithful to the source material as he can, but there are some limits to how well it translates to film. The film tries to keep the shifting, sweeping narrative of the novel, which is engrossing at times, but overbearing at others. There is just a lot of information being dropped on the viewer, and while it is quite well-written and fascinating, it is quite a lot to take in. On top of that, some of it comes across incredibly clear, but a lot of it feels buried underneath everything else that the film is trying to say or do. I will say that he does a great job of adapting the dialogue for the screen, as it often overlaps to give off a sense of everything hitting you all at once. Essentially, Baumbach does a good job of making the film a worthy adaptation in terms of what he is able to bring to the screen, but he is also let down by some of the more unwieldy aspects of the novel.
If there is anything this film proves, it is that Baumbach is capable of operating on a larger scale, and that he is able to pull off larger setpieces better than I would have guessed. One of the film's most cinematic moments occurs when we actually see The Airborne Toxic Event as Jack and his family are stuck in traffic. The composition and use of dark foreboding colors is quite breathtaking, and while it isn't perfect, Baumbach certainly shows some skill in creating spectacle. Another sequence that involves the family trying to escape from the campground is perhaps even more impressive, as it is both thrilling and funny. I don't want to spoil too many details of this sequence, but I will say that the moment where Jack fights off a crowd to retrieve a stuffed animal really stood out to me, specifcally in terms of how Baumbach and cinematographer Lol Crawley capture the chaos of the moment. In fact, Crawley is one of the MVPs of the whole film, as his use of color, transitions, and composition are quite incredible, and give the film a stunning, at times disorienting look to it. The art department also did a phenomenal job of bringing the world of the film to life, and the locations feel so distinct and have such a striking look to them. The supermarket is the clear standout, of course, but the campground, the college, Jack's house, and a few locations that appear later in the film, are so detailed and colorful, and are quite impressive. The film's use of music is excellent as well, with Danny Elfman delivering a great score that fits the off-kilter vibes of the film nicely. The film also features a new song from LCD Soundsystem called new body rhumba that plays over the end credits sequence. The song is incredibly infectious, and ends the film on a high note. The sequence itself is one of the film's biggest surprises for me, but I adored it and thought it was well in-line with the energy the film is bringing.
I can see some people being thrown off by the specific acting styles on display in the film, but they mostly worked for me. Adam Driver gets the chance to play a bit of a different character than usual. Jack is a rather cerebral character, but he is also more vulnerable than most of the roles Driver usually plays. Driver strikes the right balance between the intellectual and emotional aspects of the character, and understands the world of the film so well. It's a bit funny to see him playing a middle-aged professor, but he is quite great here. Greta Gerwig's performance threw me off a little at first, as her line delivery seemed stilted in the first scene we see her in. However, she settles into the character nicely, and has her moment to truly shine in the film's third part. A scene where she is revealing a secret to Jack is especially well-acted on her part, and is where her performance truly came together for me. Don Cheadle is great as always, but I did think he was underutilized. Every time he popped up, I was excited to see him, but he is absent for large stretches of the film. It's a shame, because some of the scenes he is in are some of the best in the film. A memorable scene where he and Driver are giving a joint lecture really stuck out to me, as did his poetic musings on the supermarket. I know that the character isn't in too much of the novel, either, but Cheadle has such a magnetic screen presence that I just wanted to see more of him in the film. I was also impressed by the actors who play Jack and Babette's children and stepchildren, especially Raffey Cassidy and Sam Nivola. Cassidy has this energy to her that makes her character pop, and she is especially good in the scenes where her and Driver are trying to get to the bottom of Babette's pill addiction. As for Nivola, he has this Jesse Eisenberg-esque quality to him that works so well for the character. He is able to play a smart character without coming off as annoying, and he inhabits the world of the film quite naturally.
There is no doubt in my mind that White Noise is bound to polarize audiences. Some will be turned off by how weird and how much is being thrown at the viewer, but for those who can get on the film's wavelength, this is a wild, fascinating film that lets Noah Baumbach tackle his most daring project to date. Some of it gets lost in translation, but Baumbach delivers a solid adaptation that brings DeLillo's novel to the screen in all its strange, dense glory. Personally, I liked a lot of the bigger swings that the film takes, and I appreciate how ambitious Baumbach gets here. It might not be his best work, but it is arguably his most intriguing and visually-stunning film to date. It's a slight departure from Baumbach's other work, but can't help but like what he's doing here. If nothing else, the technical aspects are great across the board, and the film's distinct look will stick with me for a while. It's a flawed film, but even still, White Noise is a bold work that satirizes American life, and while some of its observations are quite obvious, it is still a wonderfully weird experience.