Noah Baumbach and company provide a wild re-imagining of Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise’
Spielbergian, Altman-esque, Lynchian… the concept of turning a filmmaker’s name into an adjective isn’t new. People might not say “Baumbachian” really, but the term will generate an image for anyone who knows the writer-director Noah Baumbach. He makes low-key and originally-scripted films about modern ennui in the city. Nine of Baumbach’s movies are set in either New York or LA and feature characters (usually artists) dealing with everyday issues, from family strife to growing up. Yet White Noise might show that Noah Baumbach can step outside of the “Baumbachian” genre.
This bleak comedy is an adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel of the same name, and it certainly feels like a departure from what Noah Baumbach has delivered in the past. Sure, some of the parts are the same, but they function entirely differently. Frequent collaborators Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig play a husband and wife during the mid-80s, raising a blended family in a college town where Driver’s character Jack Gladney is a professor and Gerwig’s character Babette is a homemaker and aerobics instructor. Yet things are not as ordinary as they seem, and the family has to contend with pill addictions, mortality, educational in-fighting, weird children, and the “Airborne Toxic Event.”
An ordinary story this is not. Everything about this movie is heightened to the nth degree. Characters act irrationally and run wild as a chemical disaster threatens the lives of the Gladney family and everyone they know and love. A faithful adaptation of the novel, White Noise gives Baumbach and company the chance to lean into the silliness. The comedic origins of Noah Baumbach date back to his feature Kicking and Screaming (not the Will Ferrell one), while audiences first noticed Adam Driver in the comedy Girls. Supporting actor Don Cheadle delivers a showstopping performance in White Noise, reminiscent of his roles in comedies like the Oceans Trilogy or Boogie Nights. Heck, even Greta Gerwig was at one point even in talks to be the star of a How I Met Your Mother spinoff! The comedic bona fides are there, but they’ve never been so well-deployed to each person’s skill set.
Adam Driver deploys a wild accent that sounds only a degree removed from a Steve Martin character, simultaneously watching the world and his marriage crumble. Pill-addicted Babette gives Greta Gerwig the chance to play a spaced-out weirdo in one scene and then a tortured and depressed mother in the next. Even the Gladney children (played by Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, and May Nivola) have issues of their own, observing all of the wildness around them. If played dramatically by anyone, this would be a campy tragedy. Instead, White Noise finds the necessary tempo to let comedy shine through in every shot. One character positively compares Elvis Presley and Adolf Hitler. A scientist almost drinks a vial of an unknown chemical. A car drives through a river.
Moments that should be sad are filled with bizarre optimism, and the uplifting-on-paper beats seem dour when you stare into the tear-filled eyes of a manic Greta Gerwig. The movie is filled to the brim with contradictions, but it builds to a portrait of an authentic-enough family. Baumbach might have redefined what his adjective means with White Noise, and I personally think it’s for the better. The production of the film is somewhat uncharted for Baumbach as well, featuring a comedic and hyper score from Danny Elfman and some electric editing from Matthew Hannam, best known for editing genre-bending movies like Swiss Army Man, Possessor, and Vox Lux.
Come with limited expectations, and you’ll likely enjoy whatever you see. But be prepared to see Adam Driver wielding a gun, Don Cheadle lecturing about the American ideal of car crashes, and Outkast’s André Benjamin shaking his cookies to the tune of LCD Soundsystem. White Noise might not be for everyone, but I think it’s perfect for those who will get on its wavelength.