There’s much to appreciate in Noah Baumbach’s alternately exhilarating and enervating attempt to tame Don DeLillo’s comedy of death, White Noise, not least the daredevil spirit and ambition with which the writer-director and his cast plunge into the tricky material. But little in this episodic freakout hits the target quite as well as the wild end credits sequence, a dance number set in a suburban A&P supermarket, in which the entire ensemble boogie in aisles stacked with colorful products, accompanied by an LCD Soundsystem banger called “ New Body Rhumba.” With that ecstatic visual, Baumbach nails a key theme of the book — Americans seeking solace from their mortality in consumerism.
The 1984 novel is a postmodern satire of encroaching disquiet and cacophonous chaos that — particularly in its depiction of environmental catastrophe and human-made disasters — now seems even less like epochal paranoia than it did at the time. But although it’s crammed with characters and events, it’s also fundamentally a careening clown car of ideas, which is probably why it’s long been considered unfilmable.
The Bottom Line
Equal parts clear signal and wearying static.
That perception doesn’t change a lot with this valiant Netflix adaptation. It feels like the streaming service was so high on the deserved critical acclaim for Baumbach’s Marriage Story that they gave him carte blanche and a mountain of cash to make his passion project, a property that had defeated more than one filmmaker in development hell before him.
This is Baumbach’s third feature for Netflix, and its greatest strength recalls the first of those, The Meyerowitz Stories — the affectionate observation of a rambunctious family who tends to talk all at once, often at cross-purposes.
Here it’s the blended family of Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), each of them on their fourth marriage and raising the children of previous unions — Jack’s analytically inclined teenage son Heinrich (Sam Nivola) and sensitive younger daughter Steffie (May Nivola); and Babette’s hard-nosed 11-year-old Denise (Raffey Cassidy), vigilantly monitoring her mother’s neurotic behavior; as well as the 6-year-old son they had together, Wilder (played by twins Henry and Dean Moore).
Also sharp is the satirical take on an academic milieu, the playfully named College-on-the-Hill, a liberal arts institution that here feels like upstate New York. Jack founded the department of Hitler Studies and is embarrassed that despite it being a course requirement, he never learned German so is hastily taking lessons ahead of a conference.
A gaggle of caustically opinionated professors — including characters played by Jodie Turner-Smith, André L. Benjamin and New York theater director Sam Gold — provides texture. The most substantially fleshed out of them is Murray Sisskind (a wonderful intellectual caricature from Don Cheadle), who teaches a course in pop-cultural iconography that, right off the bat, will make you want to enroll.
Murray opens the film with a class on the car crash in Hollywood movies, rhapsodizing about the “secular optimism and self-celebration” delivered in big-screen auto collisions, each one more spectacular than the last. He enthuses over footage of mangled metal and flaming wreckage, admiring a carefree, lighthearted quality that foreign movies could never approach. One of the standout set-pieces of this enjoyable early section is an impromptu joint lecture in which Jack lends his campus rock-star mystique to Murray’s class as they parallel the lives of two mythical figures, Hitler and Elvis Presley, respectively.
At home, Jack and Babette both fret about being the first to die, left to face the abyss alone. Death is a hot topic in the ramshackle house, with the kids rushing to the TV to watch news coverage of a plane crash.
So far so good. It’s when Baumbach’s script shifts from wry situational observation into more concrete plot incident that the material starts showing its age and the literary roots become more cumbersome.
Corresponding to the novel, the second part kicks off when an oil tanker crashes into a freight train in the nearby area, causing a chemical spill progressively upgraded in news reports from a feathery plume to a black billowing cloud to an “Airborne Toxic Event,” which gives the section its title. An evacuation order triggers panic, which is amplified in Jack when he’s directly exposed to the cloud while pumping gas. It doesn’t help that he’s told to sit tight for 15 years to gauge the health risk.
There are fun touches, like science geek Heinrich gaining social confidence as he regales the crowd of evacuees at a camp with his detailed insights. But the film overall becomes steadily less involving — and more grating in its quirks — as it explores both the ecological and emotional fallout of the chemical spill.
The focus starts to seem pulled in too many directions, including the proliferation of conspiracy theories; the family’s concern over secretive Babette’s memory lapses due to an experimental anxiety drug called Dylar; the role of a shadow figure known as Mr. Gray (Lars Eidinger); and Murray planting the idea in Jack’s head that perhaps he can overcome his own fear of death by taking someone else’s life.
The power of violence and terror to reunite families in troubled times still seems a ripe notion for satire, as does the American dependence on pharmaceuticals for comfort and the long reach of eco-mess in our lives. But the movie’s manic machinations become less, not more, connected to any tangible contemporary reality, making it play like a period piece trapped in amber. Even rollicking sequences like Jack and brood speeding away from danger in the family station wagon, temporarily set adrift on a river, don’t build much comic momentum.
The feeling remains that Baumbach is more in command with character-driven material than with this kind of accelerated absurdist plotting, which works to the extent it does in part thanks to Danny Elfman’s dark funhouse score, an exuberant return to vintage form.
As the pilot for all this mayhem, Driver certainly commits; he makes amusing use of his outsize physical presence by swooping around the College-on-the-Hill campus wearing his academic gown like a vampire’s cape.
Gerwig, sporting a mop of tight curls that Murray describes as “important hair,” fades away much like her character, who spends stretches of the movie staring out a window in sweats, lost in numbed anxiety. The kids remain more captivating, with Sam and May Nivola (the children of Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer) making lively impressions, while Cassidy is an appealingly bossy presence, in many ways the most responsible figure in the house.
“We are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts,” says Murray late in the action, articulating a thesis about learning to shut out that world, however temporarily, that coheres only intermittently in the film. More apropos is Jack’s comment near the start: “Let’s enjoy these aimless days while we can.” Only in the closing supermarket dance explosion does that exhortation become truly infectious. Despite the movie’s inconsistency, at least it sends you out on a high.
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