Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s provocative 1985 novel satirizes the stressful chaos and insanity of American life.
White Noise, the latest film from director Noah Baumbach, is so different than what we’re used to seeing, that I was delighted, and a little surprised, that the audience I saw it with was able to accept its surreal style and laugh at its offbeat humor. It’s a comedy about modern American life, which is about as general a description as you could get, but whereas we associate comedies normally with jokes, gags, and silliness, there’s hardly any of that here. The comedy is in the overall tone of the picture: the version of life that’s presented, reflecting the brilliant, peculiar world view of a single author.
Up until now, of all the theatrical features that Baumbach has directed in a career spanning over two decades, this is the first not based on a story by him. White Noise is adapted from the 1985 novel of that name by Don DeLillo, the book that made him famous, winning the National Book Award. DeLillo’s fiction, his dark, widely ranging satiric style, examining the different kinds of madness and catastrophe we see in American society, is so distinctive, that I think adapting it helped channel Baumbach’s energy in a direction that represents a new artistic advance for him.
Adam Driver, plays Jack Gladney, a professor at a Midwestern college who helped found “Hitler studies.” For someone whose subject involves great political upheaval, he seems a mild-mannered guy. On the outside, his life is close to perfect: he has a beautiful wife named Babette, played by Greta Gerwig, and four children, three from their previous marriages, and one from their own. The kids are all hyper-aware and intellectually curious, in general more in touch with what’s going on than their parents. Baumbach has retained the time period of the book, so we’re in the 1980s, with no cell phones and no internet. And this vantage point of the past, even though it was the present when DeLillo wrote the book, turns out to be amazingly predictive of problems and concerns that we’re facing now.
First we enter a free-wheeling satiric depiction of academic life, with the usual petty conflicts, and here we are gifted with an outstanding, hilarious performance by Don Cheadle as a professor of Elvis Presley studies. Now be prepared: none of the dialogue in this film is naturalistic. People are always making statements about life and society in a deadpan, almost abstract manner that mixes the most profound thoughts with absolutely trivial attention to detail. There are always surprising bits of chatter and turns of phrase that paint the story with a tinge of folly. There’s no topic: marriage, sex, politics, religion, that escapes untouched.
Eventually there’s a plot development involving a train accident in which a huge cloud of toxic fumes escapes into the atmosphere. Existential dread enters the picture, and permeates the rest of the film, even as we keep laughing, for instance at Jack’s constant need to downplay, to a ridiculous level, the danger that threatens them, in the face of the obvious panic of his wife and kids. The misinformation around this toxic event may remind you, painfully, of what we’ve seen in the current Covid-19 pandemic. Eventually we get into a “family running for their lives” disaster film scenario, but reduced to the funniest and most outlandish extremes.
Baumbach’s visual texture is intense and colorful. There’s so much going on that you might get a little dizzy. But for me, White Noise was an invigorating comic experience, hitting that rare sweet spot between profundity and the absurd.