Dramatizes a contemporary American family’s attempts to deal with the mundane conflicts of everyday life while grappling with the universal mysteries of love, death, and the possibility of happiness in an uncertain world.
There are times when a filmmaker and his cast can be too effective. Case in point, Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise,” an ambitious adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel focusing on a professor, his family and the academics at the university he teaches at. So many of these characters are self-absorbed narcissists, people you wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with let alone watch a film about. Which is part of the problem with “Noise” – the characters are reprehensible, the situations they find themselves are ridiculous and their interactions in which they talk over each other, each involved in their own conversation, none of them listening to one another – will likely prompt you to run out of the theater, your hands covering your ears.
But, of course, that’s the point. It’s to Baumbach’s credit that he takes on such a weighty tome as DeLillo’s cult novel, one that seems timelier now than when it was written, what with its unappealing characters. Yet, as much can be learned from a fool as a wiseman and with that in mind, this may be the most worthwhile film of the season.
Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) are each on their fourth marriage, their blended family consisting of children they’ve had with previous spouses as well as a son of their own. Jack’s teenage son Heinrich (Sam Nivola) is unusually inquisitive, while his daughter Steffie (May Nivola) is quite sensitive. Babette’s daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) is constantly worried about her mother’s neurotic behavior while the couple dotes on their son Wilder (twins Henry and Dean Moore). Tragically, when they speak to one another, none of them listen to a word that’s said.
The topic of death looms over the household as the kids rush to watch a news story on a plane crash while Jack and Babette each worry about which of them will die first and leave the other behind. This preoccupation with this manifests itself with a real threat – a nearby accident involving an oil tanker causes a chemical spill that, which thanks to sensational media coverage is soon referred to as an “Airborne Toxic Event.” While the kids in the house take this threat seriously, it takes a while for mom and dad to come around before they evacuate. They realize the consequence of their delay when they pull into a massive camp of evacuees. As the collective fear of the displaced sweeps over them, chaos and paranoia reign.
DeLillo’s novel is a dense, tangential piece of work that would have been suited as a mini-series as there ends up being far too many plates for Baumbach to keep spinning, even with a healthy 136-minute running time. The narcissism of academia, the challenges of meeting the needs of children in a blended family, the blurring of fact and fiction and dealing with death are all touched upon while insecure professors speak over each other to gain a sense of approval, spouses go ignored and children are left to sort everything out on their own.
It’s heady stuff, one of these subjects weighty enough for a single film. To be sure, some of these issues are out of our control while the others are just too bothersome for an egotist to contend with. No, it’s just so much easier to bathe in the white noise that surrounds us. In the end, the old maxim “ignorance is bliss” is embraced by all. You’ve never seen a happier crew than the Gladneys as they dance towards oblivion, they and their peers content to live with their outsized opinions of themselves.
2 1/2 Stars
What a beginning! It’s too bad the middle and the end had to ruin such an analogous storyline. A pompous professor, Jack (Adam Driver), his ditzy wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their blended family find themselves amidst an environmental catastrophe. Attempting to outrun the black cloud of death, they find themselves running into it and all sorts of other issues.
The Black Cloud feels like our most recent pandemic of Covid-19 and everyone’s reaction to it. Dealing with the unknown and perhaps even facing death earlier than we want, Covid was initially a mystery much like that Black Cloud. As time went on both in our current real time and in the film, people began to accept what happened, alter their lifestyles and ultimately see the long-term effects of what happened. While this movie family is tragically self-absorbed, there were elements we can all relate to for the first act. Covid isn’t exactly in our rearview mirror and we can still see clearly what happened. Jack and Babette along with their precocious son, astute teenage daughter and and the rest of the fam, process what has happened differently; much like any family would (and has with Covid). It’s that second and third act that writer and director Noah Baumbach falls prey to his own ego, repetitively questioning his own mortality through the eyes and life of Jack.
Jack’s narcissistic view as he realizes his time on this planet is limited feels like riding on a stationary bike thinking you’re actually going to get somewhere. Spinning his cognitive wheels, we are privy to each and every repetitive thought. Meanwhile, his relationship is spiraling out of control as Babette has a secret. It is that secret that creates a world or ridiculousness and this particular element paired with Jack’s pretentiousness is too much to swallow. The condescension in the writing is palpable and Driver brings it to life whether or not we want to see it.
Sadly, the second and third acts overshadow the first, much like that Black Cloud, and creates a story through which we need to fast-forward.