Noah Baumbach’s Strengths Aren’t Lost in the Sumptuous White Noise

Movies Reviews Noah Baumbach
Noah Baumbach’s Strengths Aren’t Lost in the Sumptuous White Noise

It’s 1984 in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, an iconic novel that opens on packed cars—foreshadowing a highway that’ll soon be crammed to a stop with evacuating families. But in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s screen adaptation, we begin somewhere else, a little further back, in a classroom submerged in lecture: “Look past the violence!” It’s a call to action from professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) to his students, and an invitation to satirical logic for us, the viewers, students in the art of DeLillian critique and maximalism for the next two hours and sixteen minutes.

This plot, like all plots, “moves deathward,” as founder and professor of Hitler Studies at College-on-the-Hill Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) explains. That’s the nature of all plots, but the phrase applies in excess to White Noise. After a brief spell of normality, an “airborne toxic event” creates a pandemic that hovers ominously in the form of a black cloud over life on Earth, leaving people quarantined and displaced, uprooting the Gladneys’ mild, routine suburban life.

Babette (Greta Gerwig) and Jack have seven kids from past marriages, four of whom they’re still rearing: Wilder, Denise (Raffey Cassidy), Heinrich and Steffie (the latter two played by Sam and May Nivola, children of Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer). Baumbach uses a bizarro cast of characters to freshly convey the warmth and comfort that can be found in a partnership or close-knit nuclear family. Take, for instance, one of the many cinematic walks taken, in which the camera cuts between the mechanics of Jack’s endearing motions toward Babette, drawing his hand softly and swiftly from her neck to her lower back before sliding it into her hand like a gun returning to its holster, all of it second nature. And he does it without over-romanticizing the concept of love or family, regularly offering critique without being venomous (“Family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation.”).

Guns—and the violence inherent in them—are a huge topic of discourse, often academically discussed as so many things are in White Noise. They kick the film off through a distinctly non-Baumbachian introduction in style—a lecture on the brief history of the weapon, our mass philosophies around it and the violence that stems from it—cut with the zip and punch of a full-fledged action sequence. Historical footage whirs by in a blur of brutality as Murray pounds his lecture into students and the montage unfolds at a breakneck pace, the coming of a new style of Baumbach. At the heart of everything White Noise gets at in regards to the American condition (and the human condition, for that matter) is a searing, darkly comedic look at a nation’s fear of firepower and their somehow stronger intuition to do nothing about it. The only things more American than that are apple pie and Elvis.

White Noise is yet another sign of Elvis fever raging on in 2022, and Baumbach wields it well. Before the airborne toxic event, Murray enlists the help of Jack—his colleague and friend, and a near god in academia—to help him “build an Elvis power base” among the institution’s deciders, as Jack once did for himself for Hitler. Baumbach uses imagery of the king to both accentuate his impact and draw visual parallels between something as strikingly similar (and thought-provoking) as the Hitler heil and the Elvis chop. (The film also includes Elvis’ “Wooden Heart,” perhaps his most peculiar single, a bouncy, congenial German folk track from his time spent in the U.S. army in Germany.)

With White Noise, Baumbach marks his exit from intimate independent film scopes and minimalist aesthetics, in turn triumphantly announcing his entrance into the big, brightly colored world of major studio productions. The studio behind him is the same studio behind his last two films: Netflix, with whom he signed a contract to work exclusively over the next several years. But where their last two, The Meyerowitz Stories and Marriage Story, cost $11.4 million and $18 million respectively, White Noise’s budget is reported to be at least $80 million, possibly having spilled over $100 million, not far from the cumulative cost of his entire filmography up to this point.

The film flexes its budget creatively and responsibly, every department offering sumptuous work, a testament to the collective experience of the creative heads and Baumbach’s keen ability to wed all elements of a film into a unified whole, no matter the style or budget. He doesn’t leave a department unconsidered.

Danny Elfman’s score is a familiar kind of wonder. Jess Gonchor’s imaginative, varicolored production design makes every room worth staring at and layers a mercurial mood over each situation. Therese Ducey’s work in hair and Debbie Zoller’s in makeup stand out with a particular flare, and everything is captured exquisitely in the unhinged camerawork from cinematographer Lol Crawley. Baumbach’s screenplay, adapted from DeLillo’s singular novel, highlights the offbeat charisma and innocent charm of the richly drawn cast of characters, Babette chief among them.

In her first onscreen appearance since an explosive 2016 that included Wiener-Dog, Jackie and 20th Century Women, Gerwig reminds us why we keep falling in love with her again—whether she’s in the director’s chair, penning a screenplay or performing. Babette is a joy to behold, a magnet to your empathy and affection that embodies grace and humility. She seems inescapably secure, ironclad in her mental and emotional strength, which is what makes her prescription for Dylar—an unknown pill that her daughter and husband keep finding empty bottles of around the house—such a head-scratcher. Little does her family know, she’s consumed by a fear of death. Join the club.

Baumbach’s 13th feature and fourth collaboration with Gerwig, his wife of 11 years, feels like a natural precursor to the auteur couple’s arc toward Barbie, their fifth collaboration, which Gerwig co-wrote with her husband and is currently directing. It’s a film that becomes much easier to imagine after a screening of White Noise, a light, playful and plasticky movie, complete with a Fisher-Price supermarket blown up to adult size that looks like it belongs on the set of a pop art Andy Warhol musical. Just as telling, it’s a film loud enough to house the brightness and busyness of a new great LCD Soundsystem track, the band’s first in five years.

White Noise coasts on the lightness at times, giving way to thinness in moments of darkness, tediousness in moments of camp, but DeLillo would be a tough act for anyone to adapt. There’s a noticeable hole in Baumbach’s comedic sensibility where his once-indie chops reigned supreme. It’s perhaps the only aspect of Baumbach’s impressive evolution as a director that hasn’t developed at the same rate. He’s still pretty funny, but it’s all recognizable, like a worn bit, teetering on dad joke levels of tonal repetition across films.

It’s tempting to say the story of White Noise—which feels massive for Baumbach—is about more than an individual, or couple, or family in New York, like all of his previous films, but it is just about a family. The setting and characters are so strange and surreal that it seems like a fantasy, or an epic, or something else expensive, but it’s a natural story for Baumbach to make a career transition through. In my sincere appreciation for it, I fear the wrath of all who’ve read the book (I have not). But to those who haven’t, I can confidently say you’re in for a treat.

Director: Noah Baumbach
Writer: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Raffey Cassidy, André Benjamin, Alessandro Nivola, Jodie Turner-Smith, Don Cheadle
Release Date: November 25, 2022

Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist and arts enthusiast by way of Austin, TX. He got his master’s studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him on Twitter @lou_kicks.

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