Review | ‘White Noise,’ A Bookish Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach Dares to Bring Don DeLilo’s Classic Novel ‘White Noise’ to the Screen, with Mixed Results

‘White Noise’ | Credit: Netflix

After the experience of witnessing Noah Baumbach trying to give cinematic form to Don DeLillo’s  classic postmodern novel White Noise, I came home and asked Alexa to serve me up some white noise. I thought it might help to clarify the mess — the sometimes lovable mess — that Baumbach has concocted. Surprisingly, the white noise did help a bit in clearing my head and unpacking the thing that had just washed over my senses.

Of course, in the novel’s mid-1980s setting, Alexa and Siri would have been figments of a sci-fi author’s imagination, and yet many of the themes in DeLilo’s novel resonate with an almost eerie prescience in Baumbach’s retro-present day surreal psychodrama. Indulgent academia, familial tangles, consumerist frenzy, environmental catastrophe (“the airborne toxic event”) and behavioral excesses brought on by fear of death are among thematic plot points here.

Our thespian tour guides are a paunchy Adam Driver — professor of Hitler studies at a midwestern college — and a supra-curly-headed Greta Gerwig as his wife and the mother figure of a wildly mixed household. Buzzing around the margins of the family at the story’s epicenter are a professor teaching the virtues of cinematic car crashes and Elvis Presley (a saucy, turn from Don Cheadle), an overly precocious know-it-all teen (“family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation,” they say) and a bizarre miracle pill-peddling charlatan. As a recurring leitmotif, evermore shiny and promising grocery stores seem to hold promise of some ambiguous deliverance.

As much as Baumbach has reportedly shown great fidelity to DeLillo (I confess I have yet to read the book), this latest film figures neatly in the lineage of his own artistic evolution. His breakout film, The Squid and the Whale, dealt with a dubious patriarch/professor, with Jeff Daniels’s role based on the director’s own father. His much buzzed about 2019 film Marriage Story — also with Driver — dealt with the commonplace fragility of a relationship. In the end, White Noise, the film version, is a quirky joyride of a muddle. The blend of realism and satirical overkill never quite gel, but we’re sucked into Baumbach’s strange world of wonder nonetheless.

Here’s the good kind of spoiler alert: be sure to stick it out through the end credits, to bask in a scene featuring wild choreography of grocery store Nirvana, falling in line with such predecessors as the Stepford Wives, the orgiastic finale of Sausage Party and German photographer Andreas Gursky’s hyper-detailed, consumerist-questioning store imagery. It’s a tasty bonbon rewarding the dedicated filmgoers’ patience.

White Noise is currently screening at Metropolitan’s Hitchcock Cinema & Public House.


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