Some filmmakers take the term “unfilmable” as a challenge. For White Noise Noah Baumbach takes the guts of Don DeLillo’s novel and imbues it with every possible filmmaker homage and genre mismash to create a unholy mess of a film.
Adam Driver stars as Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill in 1984. Jack is married to his fourth wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) and they have four children in a blended family. Babette’s daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) spies on Babette taking a secret prescription while Jack is plagued by dreams of someone trying to kill him. Jack is renowned in his field and attracts the attention of fellow professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), who wishes to develop his own field of Elvis studies.
When a truck carrying toxic waste collides with a train, a cloud of waste begins to descend on the town. As the town is evacuated, the Gladney family weave through traffic and quarantine camps in hopes of escaping the “Airborne Toxic Event.” All the while, Babette continues to sneak medication and Jack continues to be haunted by the creeping crawl of impending doom.
If you’re thinking that plot description is confusing, it is. The film is split into three distinct parts. The first part establishes the family dynamic and Jack’s work, while the second half is all about the family’s evacuation from the event. The final third takes a drastic left turn which doesn’t have much correlation to the first two-thirds of the film. Just go in knowing that it won’t be a normal narrative experience.
Baumbach is definitely getting out of his comfort zone. His usual brand of talk-heavy tragicomic relationship films is well detached from this film. In fact, Baumbach seems to borrow from every filmmaker he can along the way. Shades of Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Stanley Kubrick, and even Francis Ford Coppola are present as the narrative shifts throughout the film. At about the 90-minute mark, Baumbach retreats back into his comfort zone for a scene between Jack and Babette, which might be the highlight scene of the film. I appreciate anyone who is willing to stretch and attempt to grow as a filmmaker, but it’s all too much to take from scene to scene.
The film is surprisingly action-heavy. Of the pleasant surprises, that was definitely at the top of the list. Some of the outward chaos of some of the scenes as well as the family’s attempt to navigate the chaos presented some of the most dynamic filmmaking. Unfortunately, any narrative momentum is broken by some divergence into the discussion of impending doom or pharmaceutical paranoia.
Driver schlubs around with bad fashion and a beer belly, but doesn’t expand much of the character beyond his quirks. He takes everything with the correct amount of insincerity, but his grandstanding nature comes across as patronizing. There might be far more despicable characters in other films, but Jack is wildly unpleasant despite his lack of an evil streak. Outside of Driver being himself, there is little likeable about the character. Gerwig is much more dynamic, but more as a cypher. Babette is unknowable, which Gerwig plays to a perfect degree. At the same time, that unknowability doesn’t help the audience connect to her.
Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Niovla, and Henry Moore all do a fine job as the Gladney children, but none make too much of an impression. Cheadle is having the time of his life. Murray is relegated to the background of the Gladney family action, but anytime he shows up on screen is a welcome sight. Jodie Turner-Smith pops up for a few extended cameos as a constantly busy but hilarious chemistry professor.
Without spoiling anything, the end credits features the entire cast performing a music-video like dance in a supermarket. After a fairly tepid experience for the previous two hours, the end credits were like a breath of fresh air. It leaves an exceptional taste in your mouth, but also makes the audience long for that type of energy and fun for the rest of the film.
I like that Baumbach took a chance with White Noise. It doesn’t really work as a cohesive piece of film, but there are individual pieces of enjoyment.
White Noise is streaming on Netflix on Friday, December 30th
Review: Don’t Look Up
You can follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd.
Make sure to subscribe and keep up with everything IC4F has to offer!