Director Noah Baumbach always has made original films, earning respect for efforts he’s written or co-written that include “Kicking and Screaming” (1995), “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and “Frances Ha” (2015).
After the release of his excellent, Academy Award-nominated drama “Marriage Story” in 2019, however, he didn’t have a plan for a next film, an original story he was ready to tell. As a result, he chose a doozy of a book for his first adaptation: Don DeLillo’s award-winning “White Noise.”
Baumbach first read the book relatively soon after its publication in 1985, after being given it by his father, a novelist himself and a lover of cinema. Baumbach revisited the novel in 2019, the year his father died, and says he was highly affected by DeLillo’s tale, which explores themes including consumerism, religion, mass hysteria and, especially, fear of death.
Given a limited theatrical release about a month ago, Baumbach’s adaptation lands on Netflix this week.
After two viewings — one at an advanced screening in late November and another much more recently in a living room — “White Noise” proves to be a film both fascinating and frustrating, with characters that seem relatable at times and anything but at others. And although he struggles with tone, Baumbach clearly wanted to do the novel justice, taking us through its three titled parts for a journey unusual and unpredictable.
After a brief prologue in which a college professor, Don Cheadle’s Murray Suskind, celebrates the tradition of the great car crash in cinema — “The movie breaks away from complicated human passions to show us something elemental, something loud and fiery, head on,” he says, in a bit of foreshadowing — during a classroom lecture at the College-on-the-Hill, begins Part One: “Waves and Radiation.”
Now we are introduced to another professor, Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a pioneer in the field of Hitler studies (who is embarrassed he cannot speak German), and his family: wife Babette (Greta Gerwig); three children from previous relationships, Denise (Raffey Cassidy), Heinrich (Sam Nivola), Steffie (May Nivola); and a very young boy, Wilder, from their union. Theirs is a house full of warmth and relatively sophisticated discussion, seemingly an idyllic vision of a college-town home.
“Life is good, Jack,” Babette remarks as they lie in bed, talking about how each wants to die before the other, not wanting to live in a world without his or her partner.
That good, consumption-heavy American life of the 1980s is exemplified via visits to the supermarket, constructed in an abandoned big-box store and filled with thousands of eye-catching products, many of them custom creations made in the name of period accuracy.
Within this colorful celebration of abundance, as the Gladneys traverse the inviting aisles, Jack converses with the likewise shopping Murray, who wants to do with Elvis Presley what Jack has done with the fascist icon.
“Hitler is now ‘Gladney’s Hitler!’” he exclaims with both appreciation and envy. “I marvel at what you’ve done with the man!”
(Murray also opines about Babette’s hair, that it is a “living wonder.” “Yes it is,” Jack agrees. “She has important hair,” Murray concludes.)
The town soon must grapple with more concerning matters, in Part Two: “The Airborne Toxic Event.”
As the first act comes to its rousing conclusion, Baumbach cuts back and forth between one of Murray’s Elvis lectures, in which he and a visiting Jack trade off paralleling narratives about Presley and Hitler, and the inevitable collision between a truck with a drinking-and-distracted driver and a train carrying toxic chemicals. It’s impressive filmmaking.
Still, the absurdity that has pervaded “White Noise” to this point remains as the stakes are raised, as the town is forced to evacuate and in which Jack comes in close contact with a black cloud first referred to as “a feathery plume” and then the “black, billowing cloud” but eventually getting the moniker after which the film’s middle act is named.
The last, most bizarre and hardest-to-embrace section of the film, “Dylarama,” relates to an experimental drug Babette secretly has been taking, Dylar, which becomes of great interest to Jack for more than one reason.
Before the story’s end, DeLillo and Baumbach take us to some strange places, both literally and figuratively.
You don’t envy Baumbach taking on this adaptation given the complexities of the source material. Nonetheless, you find yourself frequently wishing he would turn up the zany meter. As it is, “White Noise” is regularly ridiculous without ever being genuinely funny. We’re surely supposed to laugh more than we do at the conversations among Jack and other academics — one of whom is portrayed by actor-musician Andre Benjamin — at the fictional college over lunch.
Plus, we simply do not know how to feel about Jack and Babette, despite solid performances by Driver — a Baumbach regular and one of his “Marriage Story” stars — and Gerwig, Baumbach’s partner and a writing collaborator and onscreen performer in several of his movies. (It’s nice to see her return to acting after two impressive directorial efforts, 2017’s “Lady Bird” and 2019’s “Little Women.”) We really neither like them or loathe them, which may be the idea but feels unsatisfying all the same.
Ultimately, it can be hard to find a groove with “White Noise,” despite so many interesting and appealing components. You want both a little more from it and a little less of it, as it feels just a bit long at more than two hours.
The best thing you can say about it, though, is it’s a film that stays with you after you see it, engaging your mind in a way that contradicts its title.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
Rating: R (for brief violence and language)
Running time: 2:16
How to watch: On Netflix Friday
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