There’s widespread mourning for the loss of a particular kind of movie. Adult films that are abrasive, bizarre, and intimately concerned with everyday anxieties don’t get made anymore, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Except there is a small group of filmmakers who can make whatever they want, capitalizing on blank checks handed out by streaming companies desperate to gain catalog clout. Writer and director Lulu Wang (not in that club) explained it perfectly while sitting next to White Noise’s writer/director Noah Baumbach (very much in the club): “It’s not necessarily about making money back. It’s about brand. They’re building their brand, and when you’re an established filmmaker, you are a brand that they want to partner with to help build their own brand.”
Hence the blank checks, and hence Baumbach getting a reported budget of $100 million to adapt the “unfilmable” novel White Noise by Don DeLillo. That he delivered a movie that’s almost impossible to describe or market isn’t Netflix’s concern. They ponied up money to add to their collection of Noah Baumbach films, which fits in nicely to the fancy, prestige corner of their catalog. It is a problem for someone like me, who went into White Noise entirely unfamiliar with the book, swallowed the absurdity Baumbach came up with, and now must describe its strengths and faults in a coherent way.
This is exactly why I’m in the film criticism game. I care about what films say about us as people, the way they reflect our culture, and how palpably they can connect us. Absurdity elicits strong feelings and reflects things we both take seriously and disdain, of which White Noise grinds through with the roar of a roller coaster.
At first, it’s a cockeyed character study of Jack (Adam Driver), a prominent Hitler studies professor navigating his insular professional world and the family he’s cobbled together from his fourth marriage. Then (there’s actual titles separating sections), he unassuredly leads his family through an evacuation from an airborne toxic event. And finally, Jack and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) confront what’s been driving them up the wall this whole time, the fear of death, by searching out the provider of a mysterious drug said to cure their phobia.
Each section comes with genre shifts, new characters, and peeled back layers of Jack’s psyche. His brain isn’t in a good place, hence all the clutter, and the noise from his high minded profession, his disjointed family, and the consumerist ‘80s culture that surrounds him makes for quite the mess. Hence we see the clutter, from the overstuffed plot to the gaudy set and costume designs to the sheer envelopment of tone. The film is a lot, which will inevitably turn off many viewers, but that also leaves it wide open to adoration from others and head scratching from everyone in between.
No one should really be surprised by the swing Baumbach took here. His films are often off-kilter in one way or another, from the posturing cool of Francis Ha’s black and white cinematography to the long narrative pause in Mistress America for some good old slapstick. White Noise, though, is in a whole other realm, with car chases, train crashes, and tense gunplay making this feel like a departure from his usual character studies even though it’s still very much a character study.
A farce. That’s what White Noise is. A loud, indulgent farce about a man with the same mundane concerns that drag us all down. The certainty of death has kept us all up at night, but it’s gauche to ramble on about it. So Baumbach lets Jack have his freak out, but he puts the very large Driver in a hilariously small pull-out couch while doing it.
In the moment, it’s hard to make sense of White Noise or to even figure out if you’re enjoying it. Unless you’re immediately repulsed by its approach it will take a while for its layers to sink in, but the experience of letting something this large and bizarre wash over you has become such a rarity that the attempt itself is something to treasure. I haven’t experienced such brazen, big budget strangeness since the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, and no, that movie wasn’t good, but I desperately want more films like it and White Noise to exist. Baumbach has made a deeply strange film, and he managed to make it big, loud, and potently concerned with the things that keep us up at night. And he made it hilarious. God bless him.
Release: available in select theaters now, everywhere on Netflix December 30th
Director: Noah Baumbach
Writers: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, André Benjamin, Jodie Turner-Smith, May Nivola