Say whatever you want about his movies, but Noah Baumbach is admirably unpredictable. The director follows up his personal, emotional, Oscar-nominated Marriage Story with the oddball White Noise, an adaptation of the 1985 Don DeLillo novel. Other directors, including James L. Brooks and Barry Sonnenfeld, tried to bring the story to the screen, only to be foiled by the book's dense satiric exploration of everything from consumerism to religion to death. Baumbach clearly has a vision for how to do it, although there's only so much that can be translated, even with a 135-minute running time. Really, this should have been a limited run series rather than a feature film.
Adam Driver plays Jack Gladney, a professor whose area of expertise is the life of Adolf Hitler. He's been married multiple times, with his latest wife being Babette (Greta Gerwig). Together, they have a blended family consisting of four children. The first section of White Noise lays down some basics. Jack is prepping for a conference at his college, yet is worried his inability to speak German will hurt his credibility. Babette, who fears death, is sneakily taking a weird pill called “Dylar.” Fellow professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) thinks Jack could help him launch a new course of study at the college, centered around Elvis Presley.
It's not until the second act that the movie kicks into gear. A freak train accident sends a large toxic cloud floating over town. Everyone has to evacuate to a designated quarantine center. Jack is exposed to that cloud for two-and-a-half minutes, and is subsequently told that he might die younger than he normally would as a result. That leads to the third section, in which Jack now fears death, too. He attempts to acquire Dylar for himself as a means of pushing that fear aside. His marriage to Babette strains as a result of her describing how she obtained the mystery drug. Everyone spends a lot of time in an A&P supermarket throughout the film, as though their problems can be solved through retail therapy.
The tone of White Noise is intentionally arch. The characters look like real people, and they speak English, but they don't talk as normal people do. (Multiple conversations often take place simultaneously.) There's a heightened quality to the dialogue, particularly in the early scenes, designed to mock the intellectual disconnect Jack, Murray, and Babette have from the world around them. In other words, they analyze rather than feel whatever's going on.
Baumbach similarly plays with the story's tone, going for dark humor one minute, borderline slapstick the next. The whole toxic cloud/quarantine thread, for example, makes a detour in which Jack drives the family station wagon into a creek, leading to National Lampoon's Vacation-style silliness. Stuff gets dark in the third act, with attempted murder, prescription drug abuse, and agnostic nuns factoring in. The picture ends with a high-energy musical number.
I have to admit that I admired White Noise's manic energy and refusal to fit into any easily-definable category. Driver, Gerwig, and Cheadle give very good performances that help bring coherence to the purposefully chaotic structure. I also laughed at a number of the jokes and comedic concepts. Despite that, the movie adds up to relatively little. In trying to condense a complex book, Baumbach can't give the audience time to let any of the ideas sink in before going on to the next bit of business. It's episodically entertaining, without providing the kind of experience where you get to the end and feel like you've been on a satisfying journey with the characters.
Ultimately, White Noise is a right-down-the-middle picture, possessing a lot of terrific individual pieces that, put together, fail to create a cohesive whole. That end credits musical number is a triumph, however. If you don't watch anything else, at least watch that.
out of four
White Noise is rated R for brief violence and language. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.