White Noise (Review) – The Smuggest Disaster Movie Since Don’t Look Up

DIRECTOR: Noah Baumbach

CAST: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Raffey Cassidy, André Benjamin, Alessandro Nivola, Jodie Turner-Smith, Don Cheadle, Lars Eidinger, Sam Nivola, May Nivola

RUNNING TIME: 136 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: A family finds itself in the middle of a societal breakdown after an incident puts their town at risk…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

To attempt to film the unfilmable requires a lot of ambition, and in adapting Don DeLillo’s famously unadaptable 1985 novel White Noise, writer-director Noah Baumbach really does swing for the fences, more so than with any other project in his career to date. Baumbach, often known for much quieter arthouse-leaning dramadies like The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story, admirably puts a lot of his quirky energy into bringing DeLillo’s wild satire to the screen, the prose of which is arguably far better suited to the page than the screen, and would cause any ambitious screenwriter to scratch their head until there were scars from figuring out how to translate any of it.

As much as Baumbach really tries to achieve the impossible, though, his adaptation of White Noise is one massive swing that ultimately misses.

Set some time in the 1980s, we mainly focus on the exploits of Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a middle-age college professor who specialises in “Hitler studies” despite barely even being able to speak the German language. He’s also been married so many times that he makes Ross Gellar look like a Catholic priest, with his current wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) acting as mother to their blended family of children from previous marriages. However, when a rail crash unleashes a giant airborne toxic gas into the atmosphere, it sends the Gladneys and everyone else into a state of panic – but somehow, this big disaster-movie event is the least pressing thing on each of their minds, as they’re all consumed by thoughts of death, sadness, drug dependency, and random other thoughts that they all endlessly wax poetic about.

Ambition aside – which you can clearly see in a lot of the cinematography, the set design, and the way in which certain set pieces are staged and executed – Baumbach’s biggest error was perhaps being too faithful to DeLillo’s convoluted writing style. This is the kind of script where every single character speaks as though they are reciting entire paragraphs of long-winded prose, rather than sounding as though they’re speaking naturally (in fact, at several points they actually start saying out loud descriptive sentences that may as well have been cut-and-pasted from the novel). Nobody in this universe feels unique, emotional, or relatively normal, for they all speak with the exact same narrative voice over and over, which makes it near-impossible to connect with any of the characters, or the situations in which they find themselves in, because they all come across as pretentious blowhards that can’t say a simple sentence to save their lives. You have great actors like Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig and Don Cheadle (in a supporting role as a fellow lecturer who wants to teach his students about Elvis Presley the same way that Driver teaches about Hitler) who are left to simply say out loud this prose-heavy dialogue with barely any breathing room to make the role truly feel empathetic or natural. Often, they deliver their lines as though they’re performing Shakespeare in a community theatre, the kind where half the performers don’t even seem to understand most of the writing style at all.

Because it’s filled with endless dialogue that is heavily descriptive and dryly delivered, and lacks that essential emotional connection that should be a minimum requirement for most passable films, White Noise very quickly becomes more of an irritating chore to sit through than something genuinely pleasurable. Every time it opens its mouth to say something, you almost immediately want it to just shut up and get on with telling this wild story, which is difficult to comprehend because it keeps switching tones and genres so consistently (it’ll start off as a quirky family drama, then it turns into a disaster movie, then a film about drug addiction) that after a while, you’ll simply throw your arms up in the air and give up trying to piece it all together. It can be very annoying to sit through, like you’re stuck listening to the smuggest student at an arts school attempting to be philosophical about everything his condescending eye looks upon, and even if Baumbach’s intention was to honour DeLillo’s written word it still doesn’t translate well to a medium that requires something much different than overly complex and twisty prose.

If nothing else, White Noise is a noble failure, an ambitious attempt to adapt for the screen a tricky piece of literature that ends up proving exactly why this particular novel was considered “unfilmable” in the first place. It isn’t for lack of trying, though – Baumbach’s energy is admirable, even when it never completely works – but nonetheless, it can be very hard to sit through if you’re also rather impatient with writing that clearly loves the sound of its own narrative voice.

SO, TO SUM UP…

White Noise is an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful attempt by writer-director Noah Baumbach to adapt Don DeLillo’s famously unfilmable novel, but by being too faithful to the writer’s narrative voice, his is a film that severely struggles to overcome its long-winded storytelling that makes it impossible to care.

White Noise is now available to stream on Netflix.

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