The Mind-Boggling Grandeur of White Noise

The film is sharply funny, eerily timely, and loaded with movie stars. So why is this blockbuster-size event falling flat?

A car of screaming people in "White Noise"

Only now, in this moment in Hollywood, would an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s award-winning novel White Noise by the indie darling Noah Baumbach be funded like a blockbuster. After all, the film isn’t going to make any real money—even though it’s been playing in a few theaters for more than a month, it had its wide release yesterday on Netflix. But for years, the streamer has financed many a master filmmaker’s risky passion project. Hence the giant scale of Baumbach’s vision: DeLillo’s droll satire of ’80s existential ennui has the expansiveness of a twinkly Spielbergian adventure.

Baumbach has made two of the best movies of his career for Netflix, and the cast he’s assembled here—including Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, and Don Cheadle—is top-notch. Given all of this, plus the fact that his source material is a near-canonical piece of literature, one might figure White Noise for an awards juggernaut, or at least a solid contender. Instead, White Noise debuted at this year’s fancy film festivals to mostly tepid reviews . It’s arriving online rather quietly, as an end-of-year oddity rather than an instant magnum opus.

White Noise is without a doubt a carefully made movie that tries gamely to give flesh to the unsettling spirit of DeLillo’s work, which many have deemed “ unadaptable ” over the years. I think that label is a little overstated, and Baumbach apparently does, too, because he’s imposed a fairly clear three-act structure and given the film a soaring score by Danny Elfman that crosses eerie synths with Aaron Copland–esque grandeur. The adaptation takes the tale of a 1980s family dealing with the aftermath of a local chemical accident and gives it the vibe of a classic Amblin movie. Of course, that dissonance is part of the novel’s parody, too, and maybe why White Noise feels so confounding—though not unrewarding—to watch.

Read: ‘That’s just like White Noise .’

DeLillo’s story takes stock of the hyper-capitalism of mid-’80s America. It deconstructs the bucolic lives of the successful academic Jack Gladney (played by Driver in the film) and his wife, Babette (Gerwig). Unable to enjoy the suburban splendor around them, they fixate on their fears of death and vain attempts at self-improvement. Baumbach does his best to infuse his film with mundane dread, but for the viewer, existential horror can be easily confused with a lack of energy.

A family shopping in a grocery store in "White Noise"

Still, White Noise ’s first act is filled with the kind of snappy, overlapping dialogue Baumbach excels at. Jack fends off the sarcastic children in his blended family, works to learn German to lend legitimacy to his post as a professor of “Hitler studies,” and assists his fellow academic Murray Siskind (Cheadle), who’s attempting to launch a similar department centered on Elvis Presley. In one virtuoso sequence, Jack and Murray deliver simultaneous Hitler and Elvis lectures to the same rapt audience, trading back and forth on two very different 20th-century personality cults. Baumbach’s visual fluidity, and his camera’s awed dance around the lecture hall, is a joy to behold, given that he’s tended to work on a smaller scale.

That sequence crosscuts with a train accident that releases a deadly cloud of chemicals into the atmosphere—the catastrophic “airborne toxic event” that makes all of Jack and Babette’s fears of mortality suddenly feel much more urgent. Here, the film comes alive beyond its knowing satire; Baumbach wisely makes the ensuing terror a massive, nearly hour-long set piece—by far his loftiest thrill ride yet. The Gladney family watches the news with mounting concern, and then eventually hits the road along with everyone else in town. After getting caught in a miserably long traffic jam, they proceed to a quarantine center, where every directive from the government is as baffling as it is hopelessly mismanaged. It’s funny and surprisingly unnerving stuff.

The film also manages to feel contemporary without ever dropping the throwback aesthetic. Baumbach knows he’s making this movie for an audience that has suffered its own airborne toxic event, and he brings out little panicked details that ring uncomfortably true. Jack’s initial efforts to downplay the size of the disaster, both to reassure his children and himself, are heartbreakingly relatable. Though much of the ensuing drama pokes fun at Jack’s absurd efforts to be the family’s protective alpha male, Driver is terrific at conveying the joke without entirely losing his character to it.

White Noise ’s final act, in which the Gladneys try to return to their normal lives, is the toughest knot to untangle. For its challenging conclusion, the book intentionally goes inward, delving further into Jack and Babette’s insecurities. Baumbach, however, can’t switch from the film’s exaggerated tone to something more personal. The last showdown is loaded with sentiment but still painfully arch, which is probably why the film should be remembered simply as a curiosity—a fascinating adaptation that cannot overcome the scathing ridicule built into its source material. In this potentially waning age of prestige projects underwritten by Netflix, I certainly understand why Baumbach leapt to the challenge of making White Noise . Unfortunately, a graceful ending eluded him.

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‘White Noise’ Review: Noah Baumbach Turns Don DeLillo’s 1985 Novel Into a Domestic Dystopian Period Piece Top-Heavy With Big Themes

In this prophetic/topical/overly-spelled-out fable, Adam Driver, as an entitled professor, and Greta Gerwig, as his haunted pill-popping wife, lead a college-town clan on a collision course with disaster.

By Owen Gleiberman

Owen Gleiberman

Chief Film Critic

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White Noise

With “Marriage Story,” Baumbach enjoyed the kind of success that independent filmmakers dream of. So it’s no surprise, in a way, that his first film since then, “ White Noise ” (which was given the honored slot of opening the Venice Film Festival today), is different from anything he’s ever done before. A meticulously reverent adaptation of Don DeLillo’s acerbic domestic academic satirical dystopian novel of American middle-class life in the 1980s, it’s the kind of madly audacious, swing-for-the-fences literary-event movie that a gifted director makes when he’s coming off a celebrated success and feeling his power in the industry, wanting to elevate his artistry to the next level.

In the early scenes, one recognizes, and responds with jittery pleasure, to the Baumbach touch. “White Noise” is set in a cozy leafy college town, which has grown up around a small liberal-arts school called The-College-on-the-Hill, and that makes the movie an ideal vehicle for the kind of high-spirited disputatious chatter that Baumbach is a wizard at. The central character, Jack Gladney ( Adam Driver ), teaches at the college, where he has pioneered an entire discipline devoted to Hitler Studies — which sounds like a Woody Allen joke, except that the film, like Jack, takes it all quite seriously. Jack isn’t just teaching about Hitler; he’s the excavator of the dictator’s soul, a rhapsodist of fascism.

Jack’s wife, Babette ( Greta Gerwig ), has hair that looks like an ’80s perm (though in fact it’s natural) as well as an attitude that’s spiky enough to balance his exultant narcissism, and she pops mysterious pharmaceutical pills on the sly. They’ve each been married three times before, and between them they’ve got a reasonably well-adjusted brood of broken-home children: the sharp teenager Denise (Raffey Cassidy) and her sweet younger sister Steffie (May Nivola), who are Babette’s daughters, the chip-off-the-old-block brilliant talker Heinrich (Sam Nivola), who is Jack’s son, and a young son who is both of theirs. They’re like the Brady Bunch with a touch of the Sopranos, and Baumbach, for a while, keeps the family dialogue humming.

He also introduces us to Jack’s academic colleagues, who are treated as gently cracked without being mocked, notably Murray (Don Cheadle), who is some sort of American Studies professor with a profound take on the cheesiest dimensions of American society. He thinks that supermarkets are a deep form of nirvana, and the film opens with his lecture, illustrated by a dazzling montage of film clips, on the meaning of the car crash in Hollywood cinema, which he views as a pure expression of joy (and genius). In a way, this sets the tone for all that follows. It lets us know that “White Noise” is going to be, on some level, about violence and catastrophe, and that it’s going to regard those things with a funny and ironic sidelong eye.

The first clue that we’re watching more than just an observational comedy about a nutty professor and his fractured family comes when a man driving a truck full of toxic chemicals crashes into a train, and the accident produces a massive black chemical cloud that hovers in the distance, edging inexorably toward the town. Will it move in and poison everyone? As Jack and his family pile into their Chevy station wagon, evacuating in a miles-long traffic pile-up as portentous as the one in Godard’s “Weekend,” the film, just like that, becomes a metaphorical disaster movie about fear, conspiracy, and the toxicity of consumer products.

Those pills Babette pops turns out to be harbingers of the new world. They’re not uppers — they are, rather, mood stabilizers meant to quell her fear of death. Jack and Babette are both obsessed with death (their idea of screwball chatter is discussing which of the two of them is going to die first), and when Jack, during that toxic-cloud escape, steps out of the car for two minutes to fill the gas tank, he learns he may have gotten a lethal dose of chemicals. Or given how nuts the doctors in this film sound, is that diagnosis just another conspiracy?

These are heavy questions, and “White Noise,” on the page, achieved total heaviosity. It was a novel of ideas. But that’s a tricky thing to translate to the big screen. As a movie, “White Noise” announces its themes loudly and proudly, but the trouble is that it announces them more than it makes you feel them. Gerwig has one of the best scenes — a tearfully extended, ripped-from the-gut monologue in which she confesses her adultery to Jack, though her transgression isn’t about any desire to stray so much as her compulsion to get those pills by any means necessary. By the time Jack heads out with a tiny gun to confront the man Babette slept with, “White Noise” has found its heart of darkness but lost its pulse. We no longer buy what we’re seeing, even as we’re told, explicitly, what it all means. The film ties itself into knots to explicate the bad news. How telling, then, that it’s so much more effective when it’s willing to be upbeat, notably in a triumphantly daffy closing-credits dance sequence that takes place in the brightly lit aisles of the A&P. Set to the joyful thumping groove of “New Body Rhumba” by LCD Soundsystem, the place really does seem like ironic nirvana. That’s a quality “White Noise” could have used more of.  

Reviewed at Dolby 88, Aug. 19, 2022. Running time: 136 mins.

  • Production: A Netflix release of an NBGG Pictures, Heyday Films production, in association with A24. Producers: Noah Baumbach, David Heyman, Uri Singer. Executive producers: Brian Bell, Leslie Converse.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Noah Baumbach. Camera: Lol Crawley. Editor: Matthew Hannam. Music: Danny Elfman.
  • With: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Niviola, Jodie Turner-Smith, André L. Benjamin, Sam Gold, Carlos Jacott, Lars Eidinger, Francis Jue, Barbara Sukowa.

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  1. The Mind-Boggling Grandeur of White Noise

    Instead, White Noise debuted at this year’s fancy film festivals to mostly tepid reviews. It’s arriving online rather quietly, as an end-of-year oddity rather than an instant magnum opus.

  2. 'White Noise' Review: Noah Baumbach's Dystopian ...

    ‘White Noise’ Review: Noah Baumbach Turns Don DeLillo’s 1985 Novel Into a Domestic Dystopian Period Piece Top-Heavy With Big Themes Reviewed at Dolby 88, Aug. 19, 2022. Running time: 136 mins.