Producers: Noah Baumbach, David Heyman and Uri Singer Director: Noah Baumbach Screenplay: Noah Baumbach Cast: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Nivola, Jodie Turner-Smith, André L. Benjamin, Lars Eidinger, Sam Gold, Carlos Jacott, Francis Jue, Danny Wolohan and Barbara Sukowa Distributor: Netflix
Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel has long been considered important—some would say prescient, even visionary—but also deemed unfilmable. That hasn’t deterred Noah Baumbach who, on the heels of his highly lauded “Marriage Story,” persuaded Netflix to bankroll his crack at it. The result is a film that, while it naturally edits out some of the book’s episodes (even famous ones) and makes other alterations, adjustments and additions (most notably a bravura dance sequence over the end credits), is actually a remarkably faithful adaptation, down to much of the dialogue. That’s not entirely to its advantage, since while the book may have been ahead of its time, now it feels a bit behind ours.
Yet Baumbach has made a valiant attempt to wrestle into cinematic form a tome that, while it lacks the literal heft of many classics and is geographically limited, covers an enormous amount of territory: it’s part academic satire, part domestic dramedy, part disaster epic, part mystery and part disquisition on the clash between reality and imagination, taking time to critique consumerism, the pharmaceutical industry, religion and the public’s fascination with catastrophe—all wrapped up in an overarching rumination on the use of all those nattering forms of “white noise” as distractions from a pervasive fear of death. One might assume that any attempt to adapt such a book for the screen would be a mess, but like the novel Baumbach’s effort is elegant, precise, carefully constructed and tonally consistent, though deliberately bizarre. If the result sometimes falls short of its source, the film is still a noble effort to capture the book’s idiosyncratic spirit on film.
The protagonist of the piece, Jack, or J.A.K. to use his publishing name, Gladney (Adam Driver), is an internationally renowned Professor of Hitler Studies at a place called College-on-the-Hill—in fact, he is recognized as the creator of the field. He attracts legions of awestruck students, and his closest faculty colleague, relative newcomer Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) is so impressed with his accomplishment that he asks for his help to win him administrative support for his plan to emulate him by establishing a similar niche discipline devoted to Elvis Presley. The result is a humorous class-presentation duet in which they compare Hitler and Elvis in rapid-fire fact-shouting, an academic vaudeville routine that holds everybody, including fellow faculty, spellbound.
But Gladney knows he’s a bit of a fraud. Afraid that attendees at an upcoming Hitler conference he’ll be hosting will learn that he doesn’t know German (apart from, a few phrases), he’s taking language lessons on the sly from a sketchy teacher (Danny Wolohan), though without much success. Otherwise he and other academic colleagues as peculiar as Murray (but presumably tenured) spend much of their time sitting around cafeteria tables blurting out faddish observations that have little connection to each other and are simply left hanging.
At home Jack and his third wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), a physical trainer like him on a third marriage, preside unsteadily over a brood of children: hyper-analytical Heinrich (Sam Nivola) and intuitive daughter Steffie (May Nivola), both his by previous wives, and Babette’s intense daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy), along with their own young son Wilder (Henry and Dean Moore). The domestic atmosphere is marked by vigorous overlapping conversations and a habit of gathering together in front of the television for news reports on plane crashes.
It’s interrupted by a near-to-home disaster, the collision of a gasoline truck with a train transporting toxic chemicals that sends a plume of black smoke into the air. The result is a mandatory evacuation that sends the family on a road trip marked by hallucinatory scenes of carnage, close shaves with calamity, and a stop at a deserted gas station that might have left Jack contaminated, at least according to some very speculative scientific information derived from a computer simulation.
But in the aftermath he finds that it’s Babette who’s really obsessed with a fear of death, so much so that she’s entered into an adulterous relationship with a sinister scientist called Gray (Lars Eidinger) who can provide an experimental drug designed to address such a fixation, though one with weird side effects. Out of jealousy Jack determines to confront the chemist, which he does in a scene reminiscent of the final meeting of Humbert and Quilty; but it proves a less fatal encounter, leading to a meeting with a nun-nurse (Barbara Sukowa) whose ministrations will hardly fill their spiritual void. But that closing dance number suggests that a place other than a church serves as a substitute venue for that function in society, at least that of 1984, when “White Noise” is set.
The film is as likely as the book to frustrate and antagonize as it is to enthrall. While some will smile in agreement at its quirky reflections on American culture, both high and low, others will find its satirical strokes either obvious or baffling. And for every viewer mesmerized by the stately, affected style adopted by Baumbach, cinematographer Lol Crawley and editor Matthew Hannam, there will be another put off by it.
It’s difficult, however, not to be impressed by their facility in achieving the slightly surrealistic mood they’re aiming for, and by the exquisite contributions of production designer Jess Gonchor and costumer Ann Roth in recreating an exaggerated recreation of mid-eighties suburbia. Danny Elfman’s playfully deranged score adds to the oddball atmosphere.
No less important is the success of the cast in fitting themselves into the world DeLillo, as filtered through Baumbach, creates. The language, which somehow sounds peculiar and unerringly right all at once, requires careful delivery, and Driver, Gerwig, Cheadle and all the supporting players, including the youngsters, manage the job skillfully. Embodying characters that are both slightly cartoonish and utterly earnest is a difficult balancing act to pull off, and the fact that the actors walk the tightrope so effectively is a major contribution to the film’s effect.
The mordant humor and caustic message of “White Noise” will not be to everyone’s taste, but Baumbach and company have at the very least proven that DeDillo’s brilliant 1985 take on American society was not so unfilmable after all.