White Noise: a deliriously maximalist vision

Lighter on its feet than the Don DeLillo novel it adapts, Noah Baumbach’s gleeful latest film is a welcome expansion of his cinematic universe.

2 September 2022

By Sophie Monks Kaufman

White Noise (2022)
Sight and Sound

Noah Baumbach’s White Noise opens with Professor Murray Chalmers (Don Cheadle) lecturing students at the fictitious College-on-the-Hill about the iconic qualities of the American car crash on film. His lecture is illustrated by a montage of explosions that conjure the adrenaline of disaster. There is a flicker of bloodlust in Cheadle’s eyes as he feasts on these fireballs.

“We need the occasional catastrophe to break up the relentless flow of information,” another lecturer says, later on, about the magnetism of televised destruction in 1980s America. Don DeLillo’s source novel from 1985 contrasts the numbed ease of rampant consumer culture with the spectre of death that still haunts its central family of intellectuals. This family comprises Professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), who has achieved the niche status of rock-star scholar for creating Hitler Studies at College-on-the-Hill; his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), who is struggling with memory loss; and their flock of precocious children from a pick ‘n’ mix of different marriages.

In a call-back to the opening scene, White Noise features a spectacular crash later in its first act as a railway tanker transporting toxic waste goes up in flames; the orange fire possesses a terrible beauty in contrast with the smudgy blacks and greys that otherwise dominate the scene. Baumbach has set high stakes for the impact of this crash by telling us that it needs to be iconic, so it’s delicious when it delivers.

A second source of satisfaction is the sensation of seeing Baumbach’s scope widening in one fell swoop. The director has made a career out of pinioning the neuroses of highly-strung intellectuals in realist dramas and, as this silent spectacle unfolds, his cinematic universe moves into more visually ambitious territory. This crash gives rise to an airborne toxic event, meaning that, rather than divorcing parents (as in The Squid and the Whale, 2005) or status anxiety (While We’re Young, 2014), the protagonists of White Noise have a looming ecological disaster to contextualise their existential angst. In the tradition of films like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), there’s no questioning the legitimacy of mental illness when we really are all about to die.

DeLillo’s source prose is dense with philosophical dialogue that is brilliant and exhausting in equal measure. Baumbach knows better than to tamper with lines like, “Californians invented the concept of lifestyle. This alone warrants their doom,” and does deft work by lifting out the most enjoyable lines without becoming bogged down by literal recreation. There is a distancing effect to DeLillo’s relentless razzle-dazzle, and strimming it makes the film lighter on its feet than the book.

Or as light on its feet as a story of such weighty parts can be, for White Noise attempts to – deep breath – satirise consumer culture, dignify our attempts to live and find meaning despite a fear of death, capture the absurdity of academic and family life (“family is the cradle of misinformation,” says Murray) and all the while plot out a narrative that includes a swerve into green-tinged noir and end-of-the-world science-fiction. Although filmed during the Covid-19 pandemic, the parallels between the film’s fictional public health crisis and our real one are thankfully limited to the occasional reference to ‘quarantining’.

It is a credit to the spry performances and the observant period design that there is so much glee in this adaptation. Every opportunity is taken by the Coen brothers’ regular production designer Jess Gonchor to create an atmosphere of maximalist ’80s visual pleasures. One stand-out scene involves Professors Gladney and Chalmers having the scholarly equivalent of a rap battle as they spew information about Hitler’s and Elvis’s relationships with their respective mothers in front of a slack-jawed student body. The classroom is designed with rainbow-coloured arches, and Driver wears purple-tinted glasses. Every scene boasts a wealth of lovingly sourced period-appropriate props and costuming which, once again, marks a departure for Baumbach, who has previously relied on contemporary settings.

At this point in his career, it is almost rote to note that Driver is brilliant in a manner both consistent with and subtly distinct from his every prior performance to date. Yet, watching one of the greatest actors of his generation find only stray moments in which to ground the complex humanity of his character highlights the film’s principal weakness. It might be brilliant fun and bursting with delirious standalone moments, but there is scant breathing room for the characters. It is fitting that a film titled White Noise has too much ambient interference for its existential themes to fully infuse; they hang over the narrative like black smoke over a neighbourhood.

The most thrilling scenes – the crash that leads to the airborne toxic event, and a genuinely eerie nightmare – signal at the shattering masterpiece this might have been. For all its digs at consumer culture, it feels like a supermarket sweep that brings home nothing to truly hit the spot.

► White Noise is one of the Headline Gala films at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 6, 7 and 16 October.

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