Review: White Noise

By Christian DiMartino

Noah Baumbach’s White Noise is a movie I thoroughly enjoyed, and I’m well aware that you may not. It’s certainly an acquired taste- from beginning to end, Baumbach takes you on a very strange, disorienting journey that I truly couldn’t predict, and it poses many questions and doesn’t present many answers. It’s a rather strange movie, but if it’s your thing, you’re going to like it quite a bit.

The film, which will be on Netflix December 30th, apparently came with quite the price tag. Which I feel is of note because Baumbach has never made anything like this. He typically makes small-scale comedies or dramas about… people. Look at something like his last movie, Marriage Story. You figure that couldn’t have been too costly. White Noise reportedly cost $140 million, and watching it, I could see where the money went. This is certainly a bigger swing than he’s ever taken, and the result is a movie that is all over the damn place, but in ways that I enjoyed and admired. I’m not sure what other studio would’ve taken this on, but this is a movie so unique in its weirdness that I’m thankful for Netflix for forking the money over.

I confess that I have not read the Don DeLillo novel of the same name, but I am aware of its appreciation, and the fact that it’s considered unadaptable. Watching this film, I became even more curious of the novel. Because from its opening minutes, whether it be the dialogue or the way that Baumbach has chosen to film it, there is certainly an unusual, unsettling feel to it. The characters speak and behave in ways that feel as if you’re in a dreamlike state, and after a while it dawned on me that there is a distinct, Charlie Kaufman-esque feel to it that I couldn’t help but admire.

With White Noise, you’re essentially getting two movies in one. But within those two movies, Baumbach is juggling a number of genres. So it feels like you’re getting more than just two. That may drive people crazy, or you’ll go for it. I went for it, even though I’ll say that the first half of the film compelled me a bit more than the second. The risks taken in White Noise, at the end of the day, are ultimately so admirable and kooky, and the energy of the film so lively, that I give Baumbach the benefit of the doubt.

The film is set in the 80’s, during the Reagan administration. The person I attended this screening with asked me if I could summarize the plot of this movie in two sentences. I could not live up to that challenge. Adam Driver honestly gives among his best performances so far as Jack, a college professor of Hitler studies who is happily married to Babette (Greta Gerwig). Jack and Babette are each on their fourth marriage, and they have kids from each of their past marriages. Don Cheadle is a delight as one of Jack’s colleagues, who has an obsession with Elvis. All of this is rather specific, and weird.

Jack begins having weird dreams. Babette, we know is taking a mysterious pill. A mysterious man keeps appearing in their lives at unexpected times. Their lives are further turned upside down when a flammable semi collides with a train carrying toxins, and it starts a pandemic of the sorts. It’s referred to as an Airborne Toxic Event (it’s essentially a giant black cloud that hovers over them and is potentially poisonous), and soon them and everyone around them is on the run, trying to cope with this situation in whatever way they can. Which proves to be difficult because nobody knows how to handle what they can’t understand.

I liked White Noise, in the way that it does capture a sort of surrealist energy. The film is essentially a paranoid nightmare, in terms of its subject matter, but also the way it’s filmed, and the way it’s scored (both the cinematography and score are first rate). It just happens to be delivered in two different forms. The first half of the film, centered on the A.T.E., held me in its grip more than the second half, which is a shift in gears. Through and through though, I found White Noise to be pretty funny, even if I wasn’t sure why I was laughing. It all really rests in the delivery, I suppose. Each performer here really in top form.

Watching White Noise, I wasn’t sure where Baumbach was taking us, or why. After seeing White Noise, the more you discuss and unpack it, the more everyone’s intentions seem clear. My apologies to anyone who knows the book and loves it, because I fear that what I’ve written here sounds stupid. I’m just judging White Noise as a movie, and as I movie, I went for it. It’s not quite one of Baumbach’s best, but it’s one that I am eager to revisit already. I’ll also say that I admire the fact that this film not only got made, but that it got made in this way. As if the whole film wasn’t speaking for itself, just wait until you get to the ending. If the journey leading up to the ending wasn’t working for you, the ending certainly won’t either. Like White Noise itself, I admired the hell out of it, but would certainly understand if you didn’t.


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