Movie Review: 'White Noise' is Sloppy, Weird and Compelling
I don't recommend White Noise but it is undeniably fascinating.
White Noise (2022)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach
Starring Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle
Release Date November 25th, 2022
Published November 18th, 2022
Netflix December 30th, in theaters November 24th, 2022
I've never read Don Delillo's much heralded 1985 novel, White Noise. Others have told me it is quite brilliant. I'm told it has a visionary quality that makes it quite worthy of being adapted at any time. From what I know about White Noise, Noah Baumbach, director of intimate dramas about awkward families and spiky characters, would not be the most likely choice to direct this material. The story carries elements of science fiction, high minded satire ala Joseph Heller, and a borderline unfilmable obsession with death. Unfilmable in that most audiences won't find the theme one they want to watch play out in a movie.
It's rather perfect that an iconoclast like Baumbach would choose something so seemingly impossible as his first big budget directorial effort. It's also kind of perfect that he's taken millions of dollars of Netflix money and made an indie movie on a blockbuster budget. White Noise is filled with showy, dramatic speeches, and wildly strange moments of action fitting of a director of esoteric human drama. White Noise is filled with numerous themes but none of which seems to stand out or find any satisfying resolution.
Adam Driver stars in White Noise as J.A.K or Jack Gladney, father of 5 children from 4 marriages to five different women. His new wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), shares with Jack a despairing fear of death. What begins as a somewhat romantic, if fatalistic, conversation about how they can't live without each other morphs into a morbid competition over why each cannot possibly live without the other, thus one must out live the other in order to save them from comparative states of horrific grief.
Babette's fear of death manifests in her beginning to take an experimental drug that is supposed to relieve her of the fear of death. Instead, the drug just effects Babette's memory in general making her forgetful but still deeply in fear of death. For Jack, he expresses his fear of death through his work as a professor at the fictional College on the Hill, located somewhere in Ohio. Jack has earned fame in Academic circles for his intensive course, Hitler Studies, where he opines on the evils of the dictator and the culture that made him possible the fire and brimstone style of a preacher of the apocalypse.
At one point, White Noise comes to a complete halt for a dueling speech between Driver's Jack and his best friend, Professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle). In an incredible verbal dance, Jack and Murray each pontificate about the area of their expertise. Jack, of course, knows all about Hitler while Murray's unique field of study is Elvis Presley. The pair find strange and fascinating parallels between Hitler and the King of Rock N'Roll in each having attachment issues related to their mothers, their absent fathers, and their almost supernatural ability to draw and compel a crowd.
Neither Driver and Cheadle nor Jack and Murray are competing here. Rather, the pair are improvising a intricate dance of intellects that dovetail off of one another, building on each others points, coming to the point of interrupting each other but never seeming to steal the attention away. At one moment, Jack recedes into the crowd of gathering professors and students, mesmerized by their tete a tete, and then he re-emerges in a different part of the crowd, rising from a crouch to take hold of the scene, and Murray steps back in awe to enjoy his fellow Professor's presentation.
It's the best scene in White Noise and it is so good that I want to recommend the movie solely based on the quality of Driver and Cheadle's magnificent duet. I want to recommend it but I am not sure that I can. You see, what remains of White Noise following this bravura effort is far too strange, obtuse, and esoteric to recommend for a general audience. I am simply not sure who the audience for this is meant to be. There are elements that could appeal to many different audience niches, for instance, if you love cinema and homage, there are numerous references to other directors and artists. If you love Adam Driver, here he is at his most interesting. However, you might be put off by the obsession with death or with a plot that starts and stalls and doesn't play like a movie you'd typically see in a movie theater. this is not a movie to eat popcorn to.
I'm told that Delillo's novel actually thrives on trainwrecking the narrative into some inescapable place and leaping to a new narrative thread. White Noise, in fact, depicts an actual trainwreck that serves the purpose of shifting the narrative from quirky academic satire to an equally quirky survival thriller. The family is forced to flee from their home after a train is hit by a semi-truck carry flammable chemicals. The train was carrying toxic waste and the result is what the book and film call an 'Airborne Toxic Event.' Jack ends up being exposed to the Toxic Event and assumes that it is going to kill him but that is only used to underline his ongoing obsession with death.
The Airborne Toxic Event portion of White Noise includes a chase scene and chaotic, end of the world preaching and then it just peters out into the family returning home and going on with their lives. It's weirdly clever and provides yet another narrative trainwreck into another story, though slightly less successful than the actual trainwreck scene. The final act then becomes a domestic drama as Jack investigates Babette's experimental drug. I doubt that I can spoil the movie but I am nevertheless going to end my description there.
White Noise is a particularly unsatisfying experience. On one hand, I love some of the ambition that Baumbach demonstrates. The stuff with Driver and Don Cheadle and Hitler and Elvis is genuinely riveting. Driver's performance is weird, as is Cheadle and Greta Gerwig's performances but they are entertainingly weird, they match the weird tone of White Noise. The acting is really first rate in terms of how it marries with the wild ideas of White Noise. That said, I can see where a more mainstream audience than myself, might be put off by the theatrics, the showiness, and the un-ironic bigness of these performances.
I also love the film credits which encompasses the final scene of the movie to the very end of the last credit on screen. It's essentially a music video reminiscent of the wildly anarchic and inventive style of a Spike Jonze video. The lengthy choreographed sequence marries dancers and non-dancers a like in a series of coordinated movements that mimic and mock the daily mannered pleasantries of grocery stores in our obsessive consumer culture. Actual dancers glide amid the coordinated movements of shoppers, smiling, everyday consumers, going about the business of selecting their varieties of brands and filling carts to overflow with item after item. And once again, we add yet another theme that doesn't have much bite to it.
Consumer culture is among the many broad targets of White Noise though what point is being made about consumer culture is far too broad to determine. That really is the defining quality of the movie White Noise, it's a scattershot blast of vague commentary on modern life, some of it quite interesting and entertaining and quite a lot of it presented without much insight, humor, or meaning. I could excuse that as being just like life where not everything has a deeper meaning but that feels like a cop out by both me as a writer and critic and by the movie which appears incapable of settling on any kind of point.
In that way, White Noise is maddeningly vague and yet still quite compelling. It's a mess but a very interesting and intriguing mess. There is no simple way to recommend White Noise but there is also no simple way to dismiss it either. I appreciate a lot of it and I was left baffled by so much of it that I felt deeply unsatisfied. It's not a movie that would be easy to fix with a few key changes. It's kind of a great work of art in that it is provocative and yet I could completely understand someone finding it to be a pointless mélange of disparate elements.
In that way, I kind of love and hate White Noise. It's an interpretative art piece, it requires you to determine what it is and what value it has. It invites you to decide if what you are watching is worthy at the same time, it carries traditional narrative elements presented slightly off-kilter. There are perhaps three distinct narratives at play, three recognizable types of movies slammed together in an experimental fashion and whether or not you want to work your mind through these movies is up to you.
I am at a loss. I was both baffled and entertained, intrigued and bored. I loved divining the various homages at play but was equally struck dumb by the tonal shifts and the strange, outsized performances. I loved the acting, especially the scenes between Adam Driver and Don Cheadle, but I can see disastrous elements as well in the lacking chemistry between Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig and the bizarre Airborne Toxic Event sequence which churns by in jarring fashion before being discarded. That would be the main plot of a different movie and it's only one act of White Noise and that was hard to fight through.
But, I can also recognize that that is entirely my problem. The film presents this just fine. It's weird because Noah Baumbach presents the action and the excitement of this middle section in a strangely non-action movie fashion, but it is also very basic in its way, very straightforward in terms of the actions of the characters. They just aren't traditional characters, they are much more unique and having them in this traditional setting is almost like a commentary on the limited characterizations in modern science fiction but dear God I am so far afield now that I don't know how I feel anymore and that is the effect White Noise truly leaves behind.
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