White Noise Review

Noah Baumbach’s White Noise begins with a professorial dissertation on the American public’s fascination with car crashes in the movies. In the course of the next two hours plus, this adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel careens wildly from genre to genre with divergent tones scraping against one another. That’s not an accident. I think Baumbach made the picture he set out to make.

I can’t speak to the source material though a common thread is that it’s unfilmable. Here we are though I suspect many will concur. Set in the time period when the book was penned, Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) teaches Hitler Studies at a liberal arts college. It’s the kind of higher ed institution where the faculty deem themselves brilliant and every utterance carries the weight of gospel. No matter that Professor Gladney is secretly learning German despite his self professed expertise on their history. The comedic highlight of his work comes in a “lecture off” with a colleague (Don Cheadle) who teaches Elvis Studies to his non-suspicious minded pupils.

Jack is married to Babette (Greta Gerwig). They are each on their fourth marriage with a blended brood of as many kids. Denise (Raffey Cassidy), spawned from a previous Babette nuptial, is worried about strange pills that Mom is taking called Dylar. Her stepdad is mostly oblivious and not just about that. When a train accident spills chemicals near their home, Jack seems more concerned with dinner than evacuation routes. A black cloud from the “Airborne Toxic Event” does set them off on the road where adventures in comedy, noir, relationship dramas, and Spielbergian sci-burbia await.

The real black cloud involves the fear of death. Jack and Babette are practically in a competition about who it frightens most. The screenplay has some dark and demented fun exploring the distractions to not think about The End. I must confess there were times, especially in the first act, where I wondered if the means to this movie’s eventual end was worth it. White Noise is a lot – lots of mood swings, lots of story crammed in. It falters sometimes like its college faculty in thinking it’s sharper than it is. Still those big swings are admirable and the cast is devoted to the many frames of mind. I’m not sure I always bought Driver as the aloof middle aged dad, but he’s terrific at times and so is Gerwig.

This is exhilarating and maddening and both words apply frequently. I rarely wanted to look away – sorta like a car crash though it’s tougher to categorize the sadistic allure.

*** (out of four)

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