White Noise regrettably sees Baumbach prioritize shallow spectacle and satire over human passions.
“The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation,” eminent Car Crash Studies professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) says to his friend and colleague, Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), the world’s leading Hitler Studies scholar, near the beginning of Noah Baumbach’s White Noise. It’s a line that is repeated again in voiceover later in the film, and it’s a line that could be aptly attached to many of Baumbach’s other films. From The Squid and the Whale to Meyerowitz Stories to Marriage Story, families, and the ways in which they fail one another precisely while trying to be there for one another, have an oversized thematic importance across his oeuvre. It’s fitting, then, that in his adaptation of Don DeLillo’s classic postmodern novel, the chaotic Gladney family, in all its intellectualized passive aggression, is what Baumbach seems to get most right. Zipping in and out of the kitchen, arguing over the difference between rodents and vermin, or whether it’s better to eat sugar-free gum, which causes cancer, or normal gum, which causes heart conditions, the witty rapport between the four Gladney children and two parents carries all the love and animosity undergirding any functioning family unit.
Hovering at the core of the Gladney family, and at the core of White Noise — both book and film — is the specter of death. Death haunts the airplane crashes that the family watches on TV, and the chess game highschool-aged Henreich plays by mail with a death row serial killer. Death even haunts the pillow talk between Jack and his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig); they argue listlessly at night over who will die first, each disingenuously proclaiming they would rather be the first to go so as to not see the other’s death. Death, and the existential angst swarming around the anticipation of death, is, ostensibly, the overarching theme of White Noise; unfortunately, it’s also a theme which Baumbach seems incapable of meeting in its attendant seriousness and depth.
While DeLillo’s satire evokes the cosmic tragicomedy of the theater of the absurd, meshing an existential focus on life’s meaninglessness with the spiritualistic ritual and alienated sense of belonging surrounding suburban consumerism, Baumbach never moves beyond a surface-level farce of pop-culture Americana. Baumbach, an inveterate New Yorker, has something of the Woody Allen-esque condescension of the rest of America in the way he facetiously tosses off the Gladneys’ predilection for mass market culture as goofy, sardonic character quirks.
Where DeLillo can find a genuine sense of mystery and emotional insight behind Jack’s claim that the illustrations on the back of cereal boxes are “the only avant-garde we’ve got,” Baumbach lacks reverence or curiosity in his depictions of the family’s frequent visit to the supermarket, finding only kitsch among the aisles. One need look no further than the stunning, overly long, LCD Soundsystem-scored musical number which ends the film to understand his attitude toward the source: it’s a well-choreographed, bouncy dance through the supermarket aisles with almost every character putting in an appearance, but it lacks enough distance to land anything but the most hackneyed of opinions, mistaking a pop-laden, ironic celebration of consumerism for criticism of such.
White Noise’s perspective on its characters might have felt more balanced had the film demonstrated some conviction toward the other, more serious half of Jack Gladney’s life: his lectures in Hitler Studies and his obsession with death. Unfortunately, Baumbach, the son of two New York film critics, has often been less than an astute chronicler of intellectual life; despite the large roster of bookish thinkers, writers, and artists who populate his films, he’s rarely given their cerebral pursuits more than a parting, glibly satirical glance. White Noise is no different, and its depiction of Jack’s lessons in Hitler Studies trades a larger point on the spiritual power of communal spectacle for a cheap attempt at spectacle itself, playing them almost exclusively for laughs. An impromptu double-lecture between Jack and Murray — a diatribe on the security from the fear of death which people find by losing themselves in crowds — is filmed as a campy sideshow attraction, with Jack theatrically flailing his arms around in his black academic robe, unrealistically exaggerating every point. Indeed, White Noise is populated with hammy, over-the-top performances like these, turning many of DeLillo’s bizarre, thought-provoking characters — from an atheistic nun working in a hospital to a paranoid chemistry professor always on the run — into two-dimensional cartoons.
It doesn’t help that Baumbach falls short when it comes to the film’s more spectacular scenes. The director certainly has an eye for choreographing character-based drama and the domestic scenes pop with the intricate, yet unassuming, motion of children and parents weaving around the kitchen amidst casual petty squabbles, but when it comes to larger moments of action, like car crashes and shoot-outs, Baumbach unsuccessfully grasps for visual approaches from blockbuster genre masters like Brian DePalma or Tony Scott. Perhaps the most iconic and tonally complex part of the novel, the Airborne Toxic Event — a black cloud of toxic gas accidentally spilled on the highway near the Gladneys’ house — is treated with a faux-Spielbergian sense of the sublime: a major upheaval for the Gladneys that forces them to confront their own mortality and social confusion, the event is handled with opulent crane moves that play up the scale and wondrousness of the event a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind without ever fully delivering on the emotional stakes of the characters.
That this section of the film, however, manages to still be one of its more successful sections speaks more to Baumbach’s innate talents as a filmmaker than his shortcomings, and clarifies how misguided this project was. Over a tense family dinner delivered in a series of tight, claustrophobic shots of vibrantly colored green beans being silently passed amongst the family, Baumbach does more interesting work in three minutes than he does in the remaining 134, evoking the profundity of familial silences in the lucidly comic, yet restrained, manner that populates his best work. That this, and the ensuing scenes of the family’s struggle to remain calm as they sit in traffic while evacuating their home, is eventually drowned out by a poorly constructed car chase that results in little but lame slapstick is a tidy example of the film’s failings
“The movie breaks away from complicated human passions to show us something elemental,” says Murray during a lecture on car crash footage. Baumbach, despite his own proven impulses as a chronicler of domestic drama, also breaks away from human passions in White Noise, instead focusing on spectacle and satire. Sadly, he fails to acquire that something elemental, that existential rawness of quotidian anxieties swarming through American life that DeLillo so perfectly conveys in his novel. Even death, purportedly the film’s main thematic subject, is treated so nonchalantly in the few deaths we do hear about as to barely even register. What the movie ends up as — despite its best intentions, yet wholly appropriate for a modern Netflix film — is nothing but more white noise.
Originally published as part of NYFF 2022 — Dispatch 3.