Noah Baumbach Enters Uncharted Territory in ‘White Noise’

Netflix’s famous largesse has afforded many venerable directors the chance to pursue their pricey passions. Martin Scorsese got to reverse the aging of his favorite actors. David Fincher was able to finally see his late father’s film dream lavishly come to life. And now Noah Baumbach, fresh off the glossy and awards-bedecked Marriage Story, has been given the chance to adapt a seismic tome from his youth, 1985’s White Noise, which brought author Don DeLillo worldwide acclaim.

This is Baumbach’s first time directing an adaption of someone else’s work—an interesting new angle for a writer-director so known for putting his personal grievances, peccadillos, and memories on screen. His affection for the material makes sense. White Noise’s satire and critique—both biting and strangely loving—helped set the tone for a Gen X worldview, mordant and dyspeptic but not exactly nihilistic. Baumbach’s own work has gradually become more sentimental as middle age has crept in and agitation has given way to gentle resignation.

White Noise concerns vaguely Midwestern professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), who specializes in Hitler studies at a tony little liberal arts college. He and his wife, Babette (Baumbach’s own partner, Greta Gerwig), have both been married several times in the past and have a blended coterie of children, ranging from late teens to a toddler. Their existence is busy, full of the common din of family life and the omnipresent drone of the world outside. True to his film’s title, Baumbach keeps White Noise at a constant hum, a natter of crosstalk, radio and TV reports, a supermarket P.A., and Danny Elfman’s swelling and ebbing score.

The effect is probably deliberately disorienting, a sensory overload meant to plunge us into a world that’s recognizable but more archly articulated than our own. All of that sound and activity ominously coalesces in the film’s second chapter, which follows the fallout of an accident involving hazardous chemicals. The Gladneys evacuate their home and embark on a mini odyssey, one that seems to bring them closer to danger rather than further from it. Here, Baumbach gets to try his hand at car crashes and an explosion, action-y set pieces that are far afield from the talky interiority of his other films. He stages this fright and jumble confidently, but at a slight remove, as if the idea of these things is happening rather than the actual things.

That’s a problem with White Noise on the whole, the sense that there is something impenetrable about DeLillo’s work that Baumbach can’t quite crack. The story’s themes—fear of death, societal atomization at the dawn of the information age—are clearly stated, but there’s little passion pulsing beneath the thesis. It’s a respectful, and respectable, film to a fault; it’s hard to locate the animating why of White Noise. Despite some alterations, the film seems to exist more as a recitation of the book than its own kind of invention.

Which is so often the pitfall of literary adaptations, especially those done by filmmakers deeply invested in the source material. White Noise is a reverent appreciation of DeLillo’s nearly 40-year-old text that has trouble connecting its philosophies and conundrums to our palpable present tense. On occasion, one of the film’s strange little fugues resonates: a moment of shared mortal terror between husband and wife, a parental huff of appreciation for a precocious and maturing kid, a sense of awe at a terrible thing looming on the horizon.

But those brief bursts of enriching feeling aren’t enough to sustain the film. So much else in White Noise is curiously cold to the touch—or maybe room-temperature. Baumbach avoids extremes, even when his characters are shooting guns or are stuck floating down a river in a wood-sided station wagon. We don’t feel the closeness and ardor that gave Marriage Story such prickly life, that gave The Squid and the Whale its acidic fizz, that gave such delicate shape to Frances Ha.

Perhaps White Noise is simply dated, in all its pre-Internet, pre-9/11, pre-everything else musing on American life and culture. The script, much of which is transposed from the novel, doesn’t help matters. The cast—which also includes Don Cheadle as an Elvis-obsessed professor and Lars Eidinger as an addled drug pusher—tries hard to make stiff lines sound conversational, but they often come up short. There’s a stilted quality to White Noise, which certainly may be the point when, say, the film is spoofing the high, hot wind of academic pretension. But that style fails the characters in the film’s more intimate interludes. It was probably better left on the page.

Driver comes closest to breaking out of the film’s cramped confinement. He makes Jack pompous and sweet, occasionally shrewd but mostly oblivious. He’s affable and annoying, a drifter through the late-millennium struggling to confront the inevitability rushing at him. There’s a poignant decency to his performance, rounding out a character that could easily have been just a simple American caricature. If only Baumbach could have harnessed that raw energy and applied it to the rest of the film, which is so often in need of the ache and wonder that Driver deftly embodies. It’s through him that White Noise most closely approximates a message, a shaggy portrait of humanity in flux that sees helplessness reframed as something like freedom.

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