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Noah Baumbach’s Absurdist ‘White Noise’ Finds New Relevance in a Postmodern Classic


Published January 11, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated January 11, 2023 at 10:16 a.m.

Driver, Gerwig and Cheadle are lost in the supermarket in Baumbach's very '80s adaptation of DeLillo's cult novel. - COURTESY OF WILSON WEBB/NETFLIX © 2022
  • Courtesy Of Wilson Webb/Netflix © 2022
  • Driver, Gerwig and Cheadle are lost in the supermarket in Baumbach's very '80s adaptation of DeLillo's cult novel.

Don DeLillo's White Noise was the book of the moment when it was published in 1985 — a postmodern satire that skewered the blithe consumerism of the era, wrapped up in the story of an all-American family weathering a disaster. Now, nearly 40 years later, the novel has a screen adaptation from Noah Baumbach, who's shown his skill at depicting screwed-up family dynamics in films such as The Squid and the Whale and The Meyerowitz Stories. Is White Noise (released on Netflix on December 30) still timely enough to be worth a watch? Or has its moment passed?

The deal

Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is living his best life as a professor of "Hitler studies" at the College on the Hill. Never mind that he can barely speak German; students find his operatic lectures on the Third Reich riveting. At home, he and his vivacious wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), have four precocious kids from their various marriages. Their oldest daughter (Raffey Cassidy) worries about a mystery pharmaceutical that she's seen her mom popping, but Jack dismisses her concerns.

Then the "Airborne Toxic Event" arrives. Wafting toward the college town from a derailed freight train, the black cloud represents all the formless terrors that Jack and Babette have done their best to ban from their lives. Can this family survive an evacuation from their comfortable home — and adjust to the awareness that they were never as safe as they had hoped?

Will you like it?

Baumbach keeps White Noise set firmly in the '80s, transporting us into the past with hairstyles, cars, 8-bit music and iconic brands (the now-defunct A&P supermarket chain is a central motif). As disaster sends the Gladney family on a chain of semi-comical misadventures, the film might remind viewers of vintage Steven Spielberg and the National Lampoon movies. Even the visual stylization, rich in matchy-matchy primary colors, evokes the era.

Yet White Noise isn't a nostalgia piece, because the anxieties at its center are too immediate and too familiar to dismiss as relics of another time. As the Airborne Toxic Event approaches, the family sorts through a blizzard of conflicting information. Is the threat a mere "feathery plume" or a "black, billowing cloud"? Does it cause nausea and sweaty palms or déjà vu?

"She's having outdated symptoms!" one Gladney child cries accusingly as his sister runs off to toss her cookies. It's a laugh line, but it might induce déjà vu in us as we recall all the lists of COVID-19 variant symptoms we've memorized, all the medical studies and wild theories through which we've sorted. When Jack learns that his body is contaminated by the chemical that caused the disaster, but no doctor can tell him what its persistence means for his future health, I suspect many of us can relate.

DeLillo portrayed a society saturated with information and voyeuristically fixated on catastrophes, where everything is for sale. Those trends have only accelerated into the 21st century. What may not have aged so well is the novel's intensely mannered, postmodern style: Every character pontificates like a professor, including the children.

Usually a much more naturalistic filmmaker, Baumbach leans hard into DeLillo's hyperreal mode, playing it for absurdist laughs. For roughly the first half of the movie, this choice works beautifully, aided by Driver's and Gerwig's larger-than-life performances. With its scenes of carefully choreographed overlapping dialogue, White Noise feels sometimes like sketch comedy and sometimes like a sung-through musical. One scene even plays like a showstopping number: Jack and his friend Murray (Don Cheadle), a professor of "Elvis studies," tag-team a seminar to the responsive strains of Danny Elfman's score, each vying to outdo the other in academic theater.

White Noise grows less compelling in its third act, in which the action leaves home and campus and the mood turns noir. Perhaps the problem is that the subplot involving dubious psycho-pharmaceuticals feels dated (if still undeniably relevant). Perhaps Baumbach needed to pick up the pace; two hours and 16 minutes is long for a movie that traps us in its own hermetic world. For whatever reason, by the film's end, what began as an effective dark comedy infused with dread feels more like a professor's droning lecture on the theme of our existential fears. We may think, We get it, already — until the joyously wacky end credits win us over again.

Despite wearing out its welcome, White Noise deserves credit for being a wildly ambitious, unclassifiable, thought-provoking film — the sort of movie that streaming services don't seem to know how to publicize. (Although it's a recent release from an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and a "98 percent match" with my viewing history, it didn't appear on my Netflix home screen.) Seek it out if you want a breather from the toxic cloud of algorithmically programmed content.

If you like this, try...

Cosmopolis (2012; Hulu, Kanopy, Pluto TV, tubi, rentable): Robert Pattinson plays a young billionaire who represents the corruption of the American financial system in David Cronenberg's adaptation of DeLillo's 2003 novel of the same name.

Game 6 (2005; Amazon Prime Video, Kanopy, Pluto TV, the Roku Channel, Showtime, tubi, rentable): DeLillo wrote the screenplay for this drama starring Michael Keaton as a stressed-out playwright and Boston Red Sox fan, with a score by Yo La Tengo.

Inherent Vice (2014; rentable): If you haven't had enough postmodernism yet, try Paul Thomas Anderson's sprawling adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's private-eye novel set in 1970s Los Angeles.

The original print version of this article was headlined "White Noise 30"