It’s not hard to see why Noah Baumbach, our leading film satirist on the neurotic body, would have Don DeLillo’s 1986 novel “White Noise” in his sights for adaptation, especially after the pandemic seemed to bring a new resonance to the author’s clairvoyance. An all-too-human black comedy about a dysfunctional family in a distracted, anxious, consumerist America that endures a “toxic event in the air.”
What’s hardest to accept about this ideal mix of filmmaker and material—in a way, completing a trilogy about broken but surviving families after Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Marriage Story”—is that it’s impressive in its filmic deformation and wow, but it falls short of getting into the skin of the way in which the novel immortalized with humorous seriousness our collective “brain-fade” and how each of us handles the fear of death.
Although it begins with a fitting prologue to DeLillo, added by Baumbach, in which Don Cheadle’s liberal arts college professor Murray focuses on the cultural appeal of car accidents in movies, it’s mostly a transfer. faithful to DeLillo’s details, characters, motifs, divided narratives and crackling dialogue. , from the chaotic command of Adam Driver’s doom-aware professor Jack Gladney, to the glorious ’80s trappings of production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Ann Roth, and landmark lines like “Family is a unit fragile surrounded by hostile facts”. And yet the film, which premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, feels more like a carefully crafted showcase of a groundbreaking prose work than a cohesive cinematic experience in its own right. Sometimes the most seemingly filmable of stories, and this one has disaster, secrets, violence, Y exorbitant laughs: they are the most difficult to make breathe on the screen.
But it moves with purpose from the start, as composer Danny Elfman’s Colandesque strains herald a new school year that comes to life for Jack, a protective husband/father in a boisterous family with kind and attentive fitness instructor Babette (a Greta Gerwig with crunchy perm). ) and his hyper-aware brood: know-it-all maverick teen Heinrich (Sam Nivola); observer interpolator and food health monitor Denise (Raffey Cassidy); and the youngest Steffie (May Nivola) and Wilder (Jodie Turner-Smith).
At his university, Jack’s popular Hitler studies class has a rock cult tinge, and in the tidy supermarket resplendent with candy-colored name brands, shopping is the family’s source of regenerative energy (while calamity news images are your favorite home entertainment). Privately, though, Jack and Babette can barely handle their palpable everyday dread: Lol Crawley’s textured suburban cinematography turns an imaginatively directed bedroom nightmare of Jack into something out of an existentialist “Poltergeist.” And Babette’s private burst of a mysterious white pill hasn’t gone unnoticed by Jack or Denise.
But when a semi-trailer crashes into a train carrying toxic chemicals, creating a black cloud and a mass evacuation to a busy highway and a packed scout camp, mortality takes center stage, uniting everyone with fear, conspiracy and speculation. Jack, briefly exposed to poisonous air at a gas station, now feels his own death like clockwork. What’s real and what’s not about the situation, however, allows for deadpan humor: déjà vu is a rumored symptom, and Jack’s exchange with a simulated rescue manager is postmodern vaudeville. (Two nuggets from DeLillo: “Are you saying you saw the opportunity to use the actual event to rehearse the simulation?” from Jack and the last parting words from the worker: “I wouldn’t worry about what I can’t see or feel”) .
As the dust settles (literally, as the toxic air blows away) for the third act’s return to attempted normalcy, the focus turns to the fallout from discovering what Mommy’s white pills are, threatening their marriage and seeing a vengeful Jack trying to hunt down his enigmatic dealer (a vividly disturbing Lars Eidinger) in a seedy motel.
The uninitiated may scratch their heads at the controlled chaos of the heightened plot, which is more thematic than logical, and seeing some of DeLillo’s scenes standing with humans (the cast is fine, no one is inspired) is a sobering reminder of that his characters, like As funny as they are, are more like analyzed constructions than living beings. But Baumbach’s textural/visual/sonic approach is elegant enough that even when “White Noise” is simply working, there’s always a piercing detail to absorb or a killer observation to take in, if not an emotion to latch onto. .
Baumbach also pleasantly evokes iconic films and filmmakers of the time, as if unabashedly adopting DeLillo’s exploration of facades in suggesting how other directors might have made “White Noise”: Spielbergian domesticity, Altmanesque dialogue overlapping, threat of Cronenberg, Zucker/Abraham/Zucker madness. and DePalma’s frenzy get their due. (There’s even a reference to “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”) And as if to solidify this adaptation as some kind of art installation, an end-credits dance sequence choreographed to a new LCD Soundsystem song (“new body rhumba”) evokes the most fertile creativity MTV Music Video Days.
Was this reverently tweaked “White Noise” made for fans of the book as a tribute to the greatest hits (as long as your favorite parts are in there)? If so, it won’t supplant anyone’s enjoyment, and it can spark that rereading that further cements how ahead of its time it was. But anyone unfamiliar with DeLillo’s rich rhythms, comedic enthusiasm, and lyrical vision of a civilized citizenry hardly better equipped to handle the big questions than those of the Stone Age should read the book. Surely even superfan Noah Baumbach would approve.
“White Noise” opens in US theaters on November 25 and premieres on Netflix on December 30.