It’s not hard to see why Noah Baumbach, our foremost movie satirist of the body neurotic, would have Don DeLillo’s 1986 novel “White Noise” in his sights for adaptation — especially so after the pandemic seemed to bring stark new resonance to the author’s prescient, all-too-human black comedy about a dysfunctional family in distracted, anxious, consumerist America enduring an “airborne toxic event.”
What’s harder to accept about this ideal blend of filmmaker and material — in a way, rounding out a trilogy about cracked-but-surviving families following Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Marriage Story” — is that it’s impressive in its filmic warp and woof but falls short getting under our skin the way the novel immortalized with joking seriousness our collective “brain-fade” and how each of us handle the fear of death.
Although it starts with a Baumbach-added, DeLillo-appropriate prologue in which Don Cheadle’s liberal arts college professor Murray waxes on the cultural allure of movie car crashes, it’s a mostly faithful transfer of DeLillo’s details, characters, motifs, sectioned narrative and crackling dialogue, from the shambolic command of Adam Driver’s doom-conscious professor Jack Gladney to production designer Jess Gonchor’s and costumer Ann Roth’s ‘80s-glorious trappings, and all-timer lines like “The family is a fragile unit surrounded by hostile facts.” And yet the film, which premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, is more like a lovingly crafted exhibit of a groundbreaking prose work than a cohesive movie experience in its own right. Sometimes, the most apparently filmable of stories — and this one has disaster, secrets, violence, and knockabout laughs — are the trickiest to make breathe onscreen.
But it moves with purpose from the get-go as composer Danny Elfman’s Coplandesque strains herald a new school year coming to life for Jack, a protective husband/father in a bustling family with kind, attentive fitness instructor Babette (a crispy-permed Greta Gerwig) and their hyperaware brood: contrarian know-it-all adolescent Heinrich (Sam Nivola); observant tweener and eating-health monitor Denise (Raffey Cassidy); and littler ones Steffie (May Nivola) and Wilder (Jodie Turner-Smith).
At his college, Jack’s popular Hitler Studies class has a rock-worship tinge, and at the orderly supermarket gleaming with candy-colored name brands, shopping is the family’s regenerative power source (while news footage of calamities are their favorite home entertainment). In private, though, Jack and Babette can barely manage their palpable everyday dread — Lol Crawley’s textured suburbia cinematography turning one imaginatively directed bedroom nightmare of Jack’s into something out of an existentialist “Poltergeist.” And Babette’s private popping of a mysterious white pill hasn’t gone unnoticed by Jack or Denise.
But when a semi crashes into a train carrying toxic chemicals, creating a black cloud and a mass evacuation to a crowded highway and a cramped scout camp, mortality comes front and center, bonding everyone in fear, conspiracies, and speculation. Jack – briefly exposed to the poisonous air at a gas station – now feels his own death like a ticking clock. What’s real and what isn’t about the situation, though, allows for deadpan humor: déjà vu is one rumored symptom, and Jack’s exchange with a rescue simulation administrator is the stuff of postmodern vaudeville. (Two DeLillo nuggets: Jack’s “Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event to rehearse the simulation?” and the worker’s ultimate parting words, “I wouldn’t worry about what I can’t see or feel.”)
When the dust settles (literally, as the toxic air goes) for the third act’s return to attempted normalcy, the focus is on the fallout from the discovery of what mom’s white pills are, which both threatens their marriage and sees a vengeful Jack trying to hunt down her enigmatic dealer (a vividly unsettling Lars Eidinger) at a seedy motel.
The uninitiated might scratch their heads at the heightened plot’s controlled chaos, which is more thematically driven than logical, and seeing some of DeLillo’s scenes on their feet with humans – the cast is fine, nobody’s inspired — is a sobering reminder that his characters, as entertaining as they are, are more like analyzed constructs than living beings. But Baumbach’s textural/visual/sonic approach is stylish enough that even when “White Noise” is just churning along, there’s always a keen detail to absorb or killer observation to take in, if not an emotion to latch onto.
Baumbach also enjoyably evokes era-iconic films and filmmakers, as if he were cheekily embracing DeLillo’s exploration of facades by suggesting how other directors might have realized “White Noise”: Spielbergian domesticity, Altmanesque dialogue overlap, Cronenberg menace, Zucker/Abraham/Zucker inanity and DePalma frenzy all get their due. (Even “National Lampoon’s Vacation” feels referenced.) And as if to solidify this adaptation as a kind of art installation, a closing-credits dance sequence choreographed to a new LCD Soundsystem song (“new body rhumba”) evokes the more fertilely creative music video days of MTV.
Was this reverent-with-tweaks “White Noise” made for the book’s die-hards as a greatest hits tribute (as long as your favorite bits are there)? If so, it won’t supplant anybody’s enjoyment of it, and may spark that re-read that further cements how ahead of its time it was. But anyone unfamiliar with DeLillo’s rich rhythms, comic zest and lyrical insight into a civilized citizenry hardly better equipped to handle the big questions than Stone Agers were, should read the book. Surely, even superfan Noah Baumbach would approve.
“White Noise” opens in U.S. theaters Nov. 25 and premieres on Netflix Dec. 30.