You might think it would be strange to see a mega-budget Noah Baumbach movie complete with CGI explosions, a Spielbergian kind of holy terror, and even one sadistically drawn-out jump-scare dream sequence, but the oddest thing about “White Noise” is its persistent sense of déjà vu. Not just the déjà vu of watching such a faithful adaptation of any Great American Novel — although there’s plenty of that — but also the déjà vu that’s supposedly caused by exposure to the Airborne Toxic Event at the center of Don DeLillo’s 1985 book, a prescient and enduringly tender Polaroid of our late capitalist society in which life has become indistinguishable from its own imitation, and death has become a thing that only happens to other people.
Fittingly, if not always to its credit, Baumbach’s film is split between seeming brand-new and all too familiar at the same time; equal parts inspired and exasperating, his “White Noise” is like hearing a sound and its echo all at once. At best, this adaptation uses that uncanniness to its advantage, leveraging its uniquely cinematic language to illustrate the role that movies play in creating the false memories that help distance us from the reality of our own demise (and contribute to the demise of our own reality).
At worst, Baumbach’s “White Noise” is made so wobbly by that uncanniness that it starts to feel as if it’s not an adaptation of DeLillo’s novel so much as an overworked distillation of its aura. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA isn’t in the movie because it becomes the movie itself: A picture of a picture that only allows us to see what others have already seen before. That’s what cinema is, of course, but that’s not all that it can be.
The touristic essence of Baumbach’s “White Noise” traces back to the filmmaker’s obvious affection for DeLillo’s writing, and to the many overlaps between their work: The affectless intermingling between love and cruelty, a shared penchant for what novelist Richard Powers refers to as “academic burlesque,” and a mutual understanding of the way that people cling to such language and crumbs of knowledge like driftwood to keep them from drowning in life’s chaos along with everyone else. Noah Baumbach has never written a character who wouldn’t lie to their doctor.
Outside of director adaptations like “Cosmopolis,” few movies have ever captured the author’s spirit better than Wes Anderson’s Baumbach-scripted “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the ethos of which — “We are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts” — owes far more to DeLillo than it does to Roald Dahl. Ditto its forgiving take on the role of family in a consumer-driven civilization (“These apples look fake, but at least they’ve got stars on them”), and its supermarket dance finale, which Baumbach euphorically recreates at the end of “White Noise” with some help from LCD Soundsystem.
Remember the bit in “Greenberg” when Ben Stiller asks Chris Messina if his pool can overflow, only for Messina to snap: “Yes, the pool can fucking overflow!” Good luck thinking of anything else when professor Jack Gladney (a pot-bellied Adam Driver, sandpapering his signature ferality with a newly paternal softness) is evacuating his family away from the apocalyptic cloud of black chemicals that’s formed in the sky above their liberal college town. Played by a poodle-haired Greta Gerwig — inches away from going full Carol White — Jack’s fourth wife Babette comforts her 14-year-old stepson (Sam Nivola) that they won’t run out of gas. “There’s always extra,” she says. “How can there always be extra?,” the kid shoots back. Everybody knows they can’t just keep going forever, and yet modern life has made it so easy to believe that you will; no wonder this story’s flirtation with simulation theory has the whiff of wishful thinking.
DeLillo suggested that such belief was sustained by the ritualistic distancing from death; that America’s obsessions with shopping and spectacle, both of which achieved a new garishness during the Reagan era, are modern reactions to the same raw fear that has backstopped every religion since time immemorial. The low hum of the flourescent lights on aisle five helps muffle our mortal terror — so do the commercial jingles on TV (“Who wears short shorts?”) and the disaster footage the local news shares with us as soon as the ad breaks are over. Those other people are dead, which reinforces our faith that we are not like them. Jack teaches “Hitler studies” because nothing makes him feel safer than the belief that history’s most spectacular episode of dying is just behind him.
Professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), Jack’s Elvis-obsessed colleague at the College-on-the-Hill, is addicted to car crash scenes in movies for much the same reason: To him, they are orgiastic monuments to life. Flaming shrines of naive innocence. He edits them into celebratory supercuts for his students, the faked carnage blurring into an explosive affirmation of real life. In what will prove to be one of his more radical deviations from DeLillo’s text, Baumbach refashions Suskind’s mid-book lecture (“I see these car crashes as part of a long tradition of American optimism!”) into the electric prologue of this “White Noise,” setting the stage for a manic film of ideas that genuinely sympathizes with — and takes a certain giddiness in — the various coping mechanisms we use to ignore the deathward march of our own lives.
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Baumbach recognizes that spectacle has evolved since 1985, but one of the strengths of his “White Noise” is that he recognizes how little has changed about its role in society. Not only does this adaptation refuse to update DeLillo’s story — the film’s sublime costumes, sets, and lighting taking softly fetishistic pleasure in every teal windbreaker, halogen lamp, and noir-tinged sheet of “Paris, Texas”-inspired neon green — it seeks to return the text to a time before it was diffused by all of the fiction it predicted.
Baumbach burns through DeLillo’s plot (such as it is) in a hurry, the writer-director more focused on careening between dark comedy and light terror than he is on getting to know the characters who are forced to go along for the ride. He ditches entire branches of Jack’s family in order to savor the novel’s show-stopping moments; the lecture duel between Jack and Murray is shot with the same “you gotta see this!” glee and kineticism as the dojo scene in “The Matrix.”
We know that Jack and Babette are still horny for each other despite everything, that she takes mysterious pills called Dylar that seem to mess with her memory, and that they both feel safe for the time being because it’s pretty rare for upper-middle-class white parents to die while their kids are still young enough to live at home. Jack’s colleagues — a group that also features Jodie Turner-Smith and the newly appointed patron saint of fun supporting roles in mainstream art films, André Benjamin — are mostly there to offset the poignancy of Jack’s voiceover (cribbed verbatim from the book) and keep things from growing too serious.
One hundred and four pages flash by in about 33 minutes of proto-Baumbachian conniptions and banter — much of which feels straitjacketed by DeLillo’s writing, as if Baumbach’s scabrousness were losing a war against his love for the source material — a big jolt is mixed into the warning that “whatever relaxes you is dangerous,” and then a truck crashes into a rail car and releases a “Nope”-like cloud of death over Jack’s entire life. That’s when things get really interesting.
If the first act of “White Noise” feels like a work of expert-level pantomime, the similarly faithful second act somehow creates an energy all its own. Baumbach knows that DeLillo anticipated the likes of “The Matrix,” “The Truman Show,” and scads of other stories in which reality becomes a simulation of itself, but those aren’t the movies he wants to remind you of here. A crucial difference between the “White Noise” of 2022 and the “White Noise” of 1985 is that Baumbach has already seen the movies that DeLillo’s book helped to inspire, and that frees him to have some fun with this one.
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As Jack, Babette, and the four younger members of their blended brood (a terrific group that also includes Raffey Cassidy and May Nivola) attempt to flee the airborne toxic effect, trying to suss out how safe they should feel amid the traffic jam of other families trying to do the same thing, Baumbach switches to a register that we’ve never seen from him before. Suddenly we’re in “War of the Worlds” territory, complete with oodles of Spielberg Face and a menacing awe so artful and evocative that it feels more like the real thing than a commentary on it. Something I never thought I’d write about a Baumbach film: The CGI is fantastic.
The evacuation sequences viscerally convey the appeal of disaster movies by clinging to a character who refuses to accept that he’s in one (at least at first), or to acknowledge that death can still find him in a large crowd. Baumbach’s visual language ensures that we have no such trouble. We’ve seen “Independence Day,” “Deep Impact,” and enough films of its ilk to recognize what a massive disaster supposedly looks like, but Jack — living in 1985 — doesn’t have the same frame of reference. To him, his situation doesn’t feel like a movie, and so he’s slow to recognize it as a disaster (a phenomenon illustrated in the brilliant shot of a black cloud swallowing the glow of a Shell logo just above Jack’s shoulder). We have the opposite problem, and it epitomizes why “White Noise” may be even more relevant today than it was 37 years ago: When we reckon with a disaster that seems too much like a movie, we struggle to accept that it’s real. As a character puts it in the book, and possibly also in this film: “For most people there are only two places in the world: Where they live and their TV set.”
Baumbach has an absolute field day with this dissonance; the closer his characters veer towards danger, the more that Baumbach exaggerates the movie-ness of their existence. A dramatic car chase is shot like a scene from an ’80s road trip comedy like “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” complete with a slow-motion shot of the family station flying through the air. A climactic showdown in a seedy motel — the end of the Dylar affair — drips with De Palma, all the way down to an unmissable split-diopter shot.
It’s a good thing the movie’s semiotic pleasures are so pronounced, because the book’s more basic charms don’t quite survive the trip to the big screen (let alone the ride home to Netflix). That third act gunplay is typical of an adaptation that’s always smart and on edge, but seldom involving enough beyond that. DeLillo’s writing gives readers the space to see their own existential terror reflected back at them in the funhouse mirror of Jack’s absurd circumstances, but Baumbach’s “White Noise” — more externalized by default — proves too arch for our emotions to penetrate.
Baumbach’s film is so determined to feel like “White Noise” that it ends up wearing the novel like a costume, a sensation epitomized by its lead performance. Driver is far too young to play the 51-year-old Jack (even if 38 was the 51 of 1985), though his middle-aged cosplay contributes to the general air of simulacra. More difficult to excuse is the actor’s struggle to sell the journey of Jack’s epiphanies. Driver is so naturally wild with life that he never quite musters the latent fear needed to fuel his character through the first act; it’s the same reason why the self-possession Jack finds in the third act feels less earned than it does inevitable. It’s a fitting anchor for an adaptation that gets everything so right that you might yearn for the friction that comes with getting it wrong, or at least the tension that comes from pulling away.
It’s no coincidence that the film’s most ecstatic moments — the first scene, the last scene, and the Spielbergian chaos that runs down the middle — are also the ones that most deviate from the book. Baumbach is ultimately too in sync with DeLillo for “White Noise” to escape from the shadow of its monolithic source material, as movie struggles to escape the hat on a hat sensation of that match between filmmaker and novelist, and often feels like the work of a third party who’s trying to imitate them both at once. All the same, you can still hear something almost subliminally divine under that uncanniness whenever Baumbach cranks up the volume. The sound of a beeping smoke alarm, perhaps.
“White Noise” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release it in select theaters and on Netflix later this year.