It’s hard not to be mildly amused whenever Netflix throw a ton of money at a filmmaker and give them carte blanche to do what they like. The results are always likely to divide audiences, as these directors indulge themselves without any sort of creative oversight. The latest addition to this category on the algorithm is Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s postmodern classic ‘White Noise’. A novel frequently referred to in the past as being “unfilmable”.
His previous film ‘Marriage Story’ was a huge success for both himself and Netflix. As such, there is a good chance that anyone scrolling Netflix in the next few days who sees that the latest Noah Baumbach film has arrived—and that it stars Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig—is likely to stop scrolling and get watching. On the surface this looks like it shares some DNA with an early Spielberg movie. In reality however, it’s an extremely tricky customer to get on board with.
Set in the early 80s, Driver plays Jack Gladney, a renowned professor in Hitler studies at a picturesque midwestern college. He lives with his fourth wife Babette (Gerwig) and their various kids from their previous marriages. They are both consumed with a fear of death, which is something they have to confront sooner rather than later, when a nearby chemical spill releases a toxic airborne substance into the atmosphere. They have to pack up their family and evacuate to a quarantine camp.
Although the book was published in 1985, and the story is set in the same time period, ‘White Noise’ is afforded a startling sense of relevance thanks to the “airborne toxic event” we’ve all been living through for the past two years. Exploring mortality, misinformation, and mass consumerism, if you choose to view it as a pandemic allegory, the film holds up a very uncomfortable mirror to the world we live in today.
There’s a lot to like about ‘White Noise’, whether it be the visual style, Danny Elfman’s stirring score, or the absurd levels of ambition on show. There are parts where it feels like you’re in very familiar Baumbach territory, like when he is slyly poking fun at the erosion of academia, or Jack’s embarrassment at not being able to speak German, despite his position as the foremost Hitler expert in America.
Then there are parts which feel not only as if they’ve been transplanted in from another film, but also that another filmmaker has directed them. There’s an extraordinary, and extremely effective sequence of horror, as Jack’s fear of death bleeds from his dreams into a waking nightmare. Then out of nowhere, the film teeters on the verge of becoming a National Lampoon Vacation movie. The Gladney’s nearly become the Griswold’s.
To their credit, Driver, Gerwig, and the rest of the sprawling cast do very well with extremely overwritten roles. It feels as if the dialogue has just come verbatim from the novel, and my god there’s a lot of it. It’s like a film co-written by Woody Allen, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Robert Altman, and they’re all on coke. It’s interesting, it’s unusual, but it doesn’t hold together.
In adapting what was considered to be an almost unfilmable novel so closely, Baumbach has crafted something that whilst easy to admire it’s far from easy to enjoy. The film exists in a world that is a step removed from recognisable reality, where it maintains a heightened satirical tone and an oddball frequency throughout, which some viewers might find distancing. Coupled with the existential ennui, Cold War paranoia, and a spectacularly wayward third act, it never meets the viewer in the middle and gives them something or someone to connect with.
Cast: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle Director: Noah Baumbach Writer: Noah Baumbach Released By: Netflix Certificate: 15 Duration: 136 mins Release Date: 30th December 2022