The “Airborne Toxic Event” delivers, but the rest of Noah Baumbach’s ‘White Noise’ adaptation is a pretentious slog
One of the stars of Don DeLillo’s 1985 existentially angsty postmodern novel White Noise is “the most photographed barn in America.” In probably the most meta touch of a very meta film of a supposedly unfilmable po-mo book, no one ever photographs “the most photographed barn”. I’m not sure if this is intentional. If you haven’t read the book, you wouldn’t miss the barn For DeLillo’s fans, what is the film saying with this absence? If that’s the kind of stoned-in-a-dorm room question you like wrestling with, then you might enjoy White Noise.
As it turns out, White Noise is not unfilmable. Noah Baumbach’s adaptation is pretty goshdarn literal, minus the barn and a couple of other things, right down to chapter titles popping up on the screen. Adam Driver plays Jack (AKA J.A.K.) Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at Ohio’s fictional College on the Hill, presumably a stand-in for Oberlin. We first see him marveling at a caravan of carefully curated ‘80s station wagons dropping their children off for school. Potbellied Jack enjoys his life. He’s the preeminent Hitler Studies expert in the world. He enjoys the adulation of his colleagues. His blended family with fourth wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig) seems strong and pleasantly chaotic. They’re horny enough for each other that they borderline argue about who gets to please the other by reading pornographic novels aloud. Jack’s only problem seems to be his inability to wrap his tongue around basic German in time for a looming spring conference with German scholars.
WHITE NOISE ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Written by: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle
Running time: 132 min
But all isn’t well. Babette’s daughter, Denise (Raffey Cassidy), worries that her mother’s forgetfulness might be connected to a medical problem or an affair. Right around the time that Denise is winning Jack over to investigate a Babette’s lapses and a mysterious pill she’s popping, a tractor-trailer collides with a train causing act two, “The Airborne Toxic Event.”
White Noise works best in the middle, as the Gladneys and everyone else in their college town flee a looming cloud of chemicals. The airborne toxic event is stunningly beautiful CGI and the multiple evacuations have the zip of Spielberg. There are some very funny and dark moments, such as Jack pointing out that it’s “technically illegal” to pass cars by driving on the shoulder right before a demonstration of why it would be. Lighter humor drops when the Gladneys end up on a National Lampoon’s Vacation-style forest and river adventure by trying to keep up with survivalists in the family station wagon. It’s one of the best moments of the movie before everything thuds into an overly philosophical third act.
White Noise being unfilmable isn’t the problem. As a film, it’s a delight to look at. The production design crams almost every frame of the movie with clothes, ads, and devices from the mid-’80s. It’s probably more 1985 than 1985 actually was at the time. It’s downright candy-colored. Don Cheadle, Jodie Turner-Smith, and Baumbach stalwart Carlos Jacott are all appealing as fellow professors. The camera swoops around a dubious dual lecture by Cheadle and Driver on Elvis and Hitler respectively. Everything is just as frenetic whenever we’re in the comfortably cluttered house of the Gladneys (real-life siblings Sam and May Nivola are both pretty fun). It’s all so busy that it’s almost easy to forget that there’s not a lot going on.
Primarily, DeLillo’s novel is one of ideas, which frequently splutters out of the mouths of the movie’s characters in a singular voice. And every actor sounding like a DeLillo book is a problem. I can only imagine how the movie would sound to someone who’s never read DeLillo, but I think it would sound stilted and weird. Greta Gerwig, who should be in the movie more than she is, delivers her lines more naturally than anyone else. The rest of the cast seems to be in an elaborate pantomime most of the time and we can see the effort.
The novel never convinced me of its third act, and the film doesn’t do any better. After the toxic event ends, the story doesn’t know where to go and plunges into a very boring revenge plot. The whole thing is supposed to tie up its ideas: we’re terrified of death, consumerism is an escape but a dangerous one, and something about Hitler and Elvis, maybe. After more than an hour of the characters literally telling you that they’re afraid of death and watching vintage car-crash footage and soda ads, I started to feel like Baumbach doesn’t really trust that the viewer gets the point. We do. The point just doesn’t seem as profound or timely as it did when I first read White Noise in college. Huzzah to that, too. Ideas should build on each other and evolve.
It’s disappointing because White Noise is about one-third of a really, really great movie. It looks fantastic. The toxic event and evacuation are exciting, fun, and funny. There are great supporting turns. The final credits are a grocery store dance scene set to LCD Soundsystem with Andre Benjamin shaking it like a Polaroid picture. You just have to slog through professors spouting nonsense in a singular voice to get to that point. Since when is a disaster not enough to fill a movie?