By Greg Carlson
Noah Baumbach’s ambitious, hysterical adaptation of Don DeLillo’s famously “unfilmable” modern classic “White Noise” is – given the bona fides of the source material – certain to divide opinion. For the supporters, the director’s cinephilia sparks and shimmers from one giddy moment to the next. Nobody will overlook the homage to Godard’s “Weekend,” but the filmmaker just as enthusiastically embraces the 1980s-era Spielbergian domesticity on display in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Poltergeist.” Snootier members of the intelligentsia will whine that the movie dumbs down or misses altogether the philosophical heft of the book, and the structure presents some screenplay difficulty, but Baumbach mostly has his cake and eats it: “White Noise” is very entertaining and very funny.
Netflix splashed out a reported 80-million dollars on the movie, and from the opening frames, it is clear that Baumbach is working with the largest budget of his career. Rejecting digital acquisition, the glorious 35mm motion picture photography by Lol Crawley captures all the hues in Jess Gonchor’s candy-colored production design. The 1984 setting keeps with the novel and Baumbach runs wild with the consumerism relentlessly critiqued by DeLillo. The shelves of the well-stocked A&P offer seemingly endless choices for product brands that are looped on television screens playing well-known jingles. It’s all presented as a period piece, but the foundational themes (as well as the odd coincidence linking the central protagonist’s research agenda with Kanye West’s latest awfulness) are evergreen.
Adam Driver, making his fifth movie with Baumbach, plays Jack Gladney, a middle-aged, death-obsessed, oft-married professor known as a pioneer in the field of “Hitler studies.” Gladney’s inability to speak fluent German may cause feelings of deep insecurity, but he puts up a good front for his colleagues and an even better one for his family. Spouse Babette (Greta Gerwig) is equally concerned with mortality. Daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) suspects that Babette is taking pills and aims to expose the secret. Baumbach condenses and simplifies the book’s presentation of the Jack/Babette family tree, keeping the focus on the interactions of the core group. Don Cheadle’s Murray Siskind and the rest of Gladney’s fellow academics (including Jodie Turner-Smith as Winnie Richards and Andre Benjamin as Elliot Lasher) are not utilized to their full potential.
Given the massive scope and diversity of DeLillo’s themes, any film adaptation would necessitate deletions and sacrifices. Baumbach favors the black comedy over a sense of real existential dread, but the decision doesn’t necessarily cause the movie any harm. The scale of the novel’s second section, “The Airborne Toxic Event,” sees Baumbach choreographing eye-popping action in and around evacuation site Camp Daffodil. The ensuing panic perfectly captures the confusion caused by rapidly-evolving instructions from apparently clueless civil and government authorities. The proximity of the movie to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic rings some bells. Other chimes are sounded in the environmental and climate-change disaster realities that have only become more urgent since “White Noise” was published.
By the time “White Noise” returns to the grocery store for a dance party finish that shares some DNA with the concluding scene of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” – incidentally the only other literary adaptation for which Baumbach has a screenplay credit – admirers of the filmmaker will be smiling at the ways in which the new movie embodies Baumbach’s longtime preoccupations and simultaneously points toward bold new possibilities.
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