Pity the person asking what White Noise, Noah Baumbach’s messy yet fun adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1984 novel of comic catastrophe and looming portents, is about. The response may take time to compose, arrive in paragraph form, involve contemplative gazing, and include the phrase “it’s about … America.” Such an answer may drive the potential viewer towards something starring Ryan Reynolds. This is a shame.
While White Noise does not have a strong plot and includes big honking themes (America, modernity, branding, death), it is not some distant, abstruse construction. This is a messy, crowded, clangorous story filled with ideas but also with spectacle. There are explosions, a crashing train, and even a few gunshots between the characters’ voluminous unprompted digressions.
The 1980s-set story follows Jack (Adam Driver), a founding professor in the field of “Hitler Studies” at the benignly beautiful Ivy League-ish College on the Hill. He is undergoing light professional concerns, largely around how his subpar German will hold up at the upcoming Hitler Studies conferences. Otherwise, he is generally confident and happy, never mind the terrifying nature of his field of study. Though he and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) are both previously divorced, their children hail from different couplings and are always talking over each other, Jack has the kind of high-tempo and fractiously loving family life that successful, long-running television series are built around.
Despite his admittedly creepy habit of wearing dark glasses and a black faculty gown when teaching, Jack is a campus star. His friend and fellow academic Murray (Don Cheadle) tries to use Jack’s influence to help build an entire academic field around Elvis as Jack did with Hitler.
However, this being DeLillo and Baumbach sticking to the text’s winding and discursive spirit, discontent and signals lurk. White Noise is broken into three title-carded sections. The first, “Waves and Radiation”, establishes Jack as the star of the school and a confused yet largely benign family patriarch surrounded by an atmosphere of up-tempo crosstalk in which even the darkest realities are received with a kind of glee. When Jack’s son Heinrich (Sam Nivola, doing a credible Jesse Eisenberg) runs through the house shouting, “Plane crash footage!” Jack and the others gather around the TV to watch in contented reverence.
The family’s sense of certainty is buttressed by their love not just of televisual catastrophe but the wonders of consumerism. A recurring theme is the A&P supermarket, presented here as a gleaming temple to ordered desire. Jack and Murray wheel their carts through the bright aisles, eagerly snapping up goods and rhapsodizing about the glories of the new butcher counter.
Yet, the seemingly content Jack has nightmares. Outwardly happy and honest Babette—“this is the point of Babette,” Jack says to her later, speaking in the somewhat self-consciously arch, lecture-hall style favored by the film’s characters—is sneaking pills. This is a cause of concern for their certainty-seeking daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy). Those worries are kicked into overdrive in the White Noise‘s middle segment, “The Airborne Toxic Event”.
A pulse-racing Spielbergian widescreen set piece about a truck and train collision that produces a dark, threatening, and possibly life-threatening cloud, it dumps the family into a chaotic emergency that braids apocalyptic panic with comedy. Dread mixes with boredom as the evacuation of their bucolic college town sends the packed family station wagon into a miles-long traffic jam. Information comes through rumor and radio, churned up by the family’s rattled chatter; “Family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation,” Jack notes in one of the film’s wry pronouncements.
Though Jack’s low-key panic about the danger of his exposure thrums through the remainder of White Noise, this segment is more ironic than frightening. At one point, an evacuee (the great Bill Camp) rants about the lack of media attention, suggesting the need to process the “airborne toxic event” and life in general through television. At another, Jack frantically steers the family station through a series of near-miss accidents, including sending them airborne in a slo-mo callback to National Lampoon’s Vacation.
All of this will seem off-key to those familiar with Baumbach’s work. As a director, he is known mostly for wry, urbane, dialogue-propelled dramas in which the characters talk through problems rather than act on them. (The anticlimax of his first film, 2005’s Kicking and Screaming, is instructive: the self-doubting protagonist considers a big romantic gesture but fails to get on a plane because he forgot his passport.) In White Noise, Baumbach draws from the tools of the blockbuster: special effects, car crashes, and drama-intensifying crane shots. Despite the densely layered and freewheeling academic commentary batted back and forth by Jack and Murray, the tone is antic and speedy, closer to that of Baumbach’s Wes Anderson collaborations.
That spirit differs from those familiar with the novel, whose humor is of the deadpan variety. Baumbach excises some of the darker digressions—Murray is a perkier character here, not drain-spiraling in panic, while Heinrich’s proto-incel provocations are smoothed down—to give room to Jack and Babette’s death-haunted worries and attempts at self-medication. Baumbach infuses White Noise with a bumptious spirit, with bright splashes of color and retro design giving everything a fantastical gleam.
The conclusion’s grotesque angles, grotty filth, and pungent smears of red neon—all somewhat self-consciously filched from Brian De Palma, who Baumbach co-directed a documentary about in 2015—present only a detour. Soon enough, it’s back to the supermarket, which Baumbach uses to stage a full-on music number for the end credits.
In that final LCD Soundsystem blowout, White Noise shows its anxious yet ultimately optimistic spirit. It would be easy to conclude that all this TV watching and shopping was presented with finger-wagging disfavor. DeLillo’s questioning of what lies behind that consumerism is here, heard in the third-act soliloquy by a sarcastic atheist German nun who explains her religiosity to Jack and Babette as a necessary put-on for the rest of society: “Hell is when nobody believes.”
Baumbach’s take is not a Joe Strummer critique, however (“I’m all lost in the supermarket / I can no longer shop happily / I came in here for that special offer / A guaranteed personality”). In his film, while Jack’s family might be taking part in such classic 20th-century anxiety-avoidance tactics, they enact their rituals of secular worship with a sense of fun and abandonment.
You never know when the next airborne toxic event might come.