starring Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy
written by Noah Baumbach, based on the book by Don DeLillo
directed by Noah Baumbach
by Angelo Muredda "Everything was fine, everything would continue to be fine, would eventually get better, so long as the supermarket did not slip," says professor Jack Gladney midway through White Noise, Don DeLillo's satire of contemporary middle-class American family life tested by catastrophe. DeLillo's protagonist is marvelling at the grocery store's capacity to endure unaffected in the face of a transient disaster that's hit his charming town, impressed by how the so-called "airborne toxic event" that's blown through (and now over) his community has, if anything, only enhanced the store's unnaturally perfect wares, which always seem in-season no matter the time of year. He could just as well be marvelling at the elasticity of DeLillo's novel, which holds up in the face of the ongoing global catastrophe it prefigures in many ways, a pandemic that briefly forced westerners to interrogate their insulation from the kind of suffering they normally watch on television.
Small wonder that Noah Baumbach, an effective chronicler of over-educated nuclear families challenged by divorce, abandonment, and the encroaching spectre of mortality, decided to take the text on as the equivalent of his own lockdown sourdough starter project. What better medium for an adaptation of a text obsessed with the secular-spiritualist pull of television, whose waves and radiation shine through and connect those who watch it, than Netflix, a streaming service that measures success by global minutes watched? It's surprising, then, how inert Baumbach's White Noise feels in spite of arriving at the perfect cultural moment--when most have re-emerged into quotidian life while others remain stunted by the awareness that, as Gladney puts it after receiving an ominous medical prognosis following his exposure to the event, "death has entered." Not adapted so much as tenderized, White Noise is at best a handsomely mounted, intermittently amusing curio, remarkable mainly as a record of clashing artistic sensibilities that cancel each other out, an alternately frantic and maudlin collection of disparate tableaux in search of a unifying vision.
An artificially aged-up Adam Driver plays Jack as a middle-aged cartoon B-side to his divorcee father in Marriage Story. Jack is an academic who's founded the dubious discipline of Hitler Studies at his quaint liberal arts college, where he engages in discursive rap battles with Murray (Don Cheadle), a colleague in cultural studies who does for Elvis whatever it is that Jack does for Hitler. At home, Jack presides over a Brady Bunch troupe of children born of his four wives, the current one being the typically solid but recently skittish Babette (Greta Gerwig). Adorned in dark blue-tinged glasses and a ceremonial academic robe that demarcate his academic persona in the book but are purely quirky props here, Jack seems to have a hold on his precocious brood until an industrial spill of an unknown chemical lights up the sky and turns his neighbourhood into ground zero for the sort of unnatural disasters he and his family usually watch nonwhite people going through on the news. The ensuing existential crisis forces him to re-examine his manliness, his precariousness, and his relationship with Babette, which turns out to be less transparent than he thought it was.
Generally possessed of easy, gregarious presences, Driver and Gerwig feel blunted here, their essential charisma lost in the arch rhythm of DeLillo's stylized dialogue as well as an uneasy tone that flits between sentimental, Spielbergian family drama, screwball, and pastiche at a moment's notice. The typically loquacious Gerwig is an especially odd fit for a secretive character whose neurotic fixation on her mortality is supposed to come as a shock. Largely filtered in the novel through Jack's blinkered perspective on her as an "ample" and therefore guileless woman, described in terms of what "point" her presence fulfils in the family, Babette's become a sunny, frizzy-haired blank no matter who is perceiving her, her only discernible traits supplied by our familiarity with Gerwig's screen history of playing indecisive, hyper-literate types, often in films she's co-conceived with Baumbach. Faring better are the kids, particularly the Jesse Eisenberg surrogate Sam Nivola as Heinrich, an information junkie who blooms into a disaster guru just as the limits of his parents' knowledge become obvious, and May Nivola, his sister onscreen and off, who comes into her own as a cautious observer only behind a protective face mask. They alone have any real sense of life beyond costuming quirks.
If there's a thinness to the family unit that's ostensibly at the centre of White Noise, it's because Baumbach is at best an anxious translator of the text, retaining its tripartite structure and cherrypicking its motifs while losing its texture and satirical focus. It's a unique irony that the adaptation of a novel about Americans' inability to process death and suffering without mass media as mediators has so little to say about its own mediation of either the period setting--the mid-1980s, signalled mostly through brand logos and Gerwig's and Driver's hair--or the present, despite landing on a highly contested new form of mass media. Murray's opening lecture about the spectacle of car crashes in American cinema, the footage of which we glimpse directly and in the reflections of his students' glasses as cars go up in orange fireballs, is one of several such disconnected threads adding up to nothing much, a toothless hook with no payoff, promising a comment on our pleasurable consumption of other people's pain that never arrives. Baumbach is only really playing to his and his cast's strengths--and DeLillo's play on the comforts of illogic--in the mordantly funny middle stretch, where Jack and Babette's reassurances to their children that the bad thing that appears to be happening cannot possibly be happening because it won't happen, and hasn't happened before.
Outside of this vignette, culminating in Baumbach's extended riff on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the film plays like an aimless, disconnected position paper, neither distinctively DeLillo nor distinctively Baumbach in temperament despite a closing dance number at the local A&P that evokes the end of the Baumbach-scripted Fantastic Mr. Fox. That coda felt shot through with an awareness of both the precarity of the squatting animals who make the supermarket their temporary home and the grotesqueness of this monument to American largesse and boundlessness--implying that family, not infinite canned goods, is all Mr. Fox needs. By contrast, White Noise's supermarket magic realism is all empty calories, reimagining DeLillo's motifs as the stuff of a hopelessly corny LCD Soundsystem music video in a grocery store stacked with period-appropriate cereal logos and no protein.