White Noise

  • 10 Sep - 16 Sep, 2022
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

There’s much to appreciate in Noah Baumbach’s alternately exhilarating and enervating attempt to tame Don DeLillo’s comedy of death, White Noise, not least the daredevil spirit and ambition with which the writer-director and his cast plunge into the tricky material. With that ecstatic visual, Baumbach nails a key theme of the book – Americans seeking solace from their mortality in consumerism. The 1984 novel is a postmodern satire of encroaching disquiet and cacophonous chaos that – particularly in its depiction of environmental catastrophe and human-made disasters – now seems even less like epochal paranoia than it did at the time. But although it’s crammed with characters and events, it’s also fundamentally a careening clown car of ideas, which is probably why it’s long been considered unfilm-able.

This is Baumbach’s third feature for Netflix. Here it’s the blended family of Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), each of them on their fourth marriage and raising the children of previous unions – Jack’s analytically inclined teenage son Heinrich (Sam Nivola) and sensitive younger daughter Steffie (May Nivola); and Babette’s hard-nosed 11-year-old Denise (Raffey Cassidy), vigilantly monitoring her mother’s neurotic behaviour; as well as the six-year-old son they had together, Wilder (played by twins Henry and Dean Moore).

Also sharp is the satirical take on an academic milieu, the playfully named College-on-the-Hill, a liberal arts institution that here feels like upstate New York. Jack founded the department of Hitler Studies and is embarrassed that despite it being a course requirement, he never learned German so is hastily taking lessons ahead of a conference.

The focus starts to seem pulled in too many directions, including the proliferation of conspiracy theories; the family’s concern over secretive Babette’s memory lapses due to an experimental anxiety drug called Dylar; the role of a shadow figure known as Mr Gray (Lars Eidinger); and Murray planting the idea in Jack’s head that perhaps he can overcome his own fear of death by taking someone else’s life. As the pilot for all this mayhem, Driver certainly commits; he makes amusing use of his outsize physical presence by swooping around the college-on-the-hill campus wearing his academic gown like a vampire’s cape.

– Compilation