White Noise review: Uneven but entertaining
Waves and Radiation7
The Airborne Toxic Event8
Matthew Turner | On 30, Dec 2022
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Niviola, Jodie Turner-Smith, André L Benjamin
Noah Baumbach’s third film for Netflix, following The Meyerowitz Stories and Marriage Story, represents the first time that the director has adapted someone else’s work. To that end, he’s chosen one of the great white whales with White Noise, since Don DeLillo’s acclaimed 1985 novel has spent over 20 years in movie development limbo.
Set in the late 1980s, the film – like the book – is divided into three sections. In the first, Waves and Radiations, we’re introduced to Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), professor of Hitler Studies (a course he created) at The-College-On-The-Hill, his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their not-quite Brady Bunch of children from three different marriages each – teenager Denise (Raffey Cassidy), preoccupied Heinrich (Sam Nivola), younger sister Steffie (May Nivola) – plus the 6-year-old son they’ve had together, Wilder (played by twins Henry and Dean Moore).
In the second section, The Airborne Toxic Event, the family are thrown into disarray when, well, an Airborne Toxic Event (the result of a truckload of chemicals crashing into a train) forces them to flee their idyllic Ohio home and shelter in a series of refuge centres.
The performances are terrific. Driver’s surface-level calm while sitting on a mountain of neuroses is consistently captivating, while Gerwig (and her “important hair” – a frizzy mess of natural curls) elevates distractedness to an art form and delivers strong emotion in a key confession scene.
The supporting cast are equally good, particularly Raffey Cassidy and the Nivola siblings (the real-life children of Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer – both thanked in the credits), while Don Cheadle is a delight as Jack’s academic colleague, Murray Sisskind – the scene where the pair of them deliver a simultaneous lecture, overlapping Elvis and Hitler is a definite highlight.
Baumbach’s script sticks extremely closely to the source material, to the point where it’s one of those movies that practically screams that it’s adapted from an acclaimed novel and it really wants you to know about it. That approach has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the constant dialogue (a Baumbach specialty) is a joy, and there’s an Altman-esque touch in the sound design, whereby we’re constantly overhearing amusing snippets of other people’s conversations.
The film delivers handsomely on the book’s key set-piece, the Airborne Toxic Event itself, which plays out like a mini-disaster movie, complete with a borderline absurd sequence whereby the family station wagon gets stuck in a river and drifts downstream. Baumbach’s script also does a great job of chewing over the book’s multiple themes, from the fear (and acceptance) of death to astoundingly prescient ideas such as the world being overwhelmed by conflicting information, a dependence on pharmaceuticals and an obsession with consumerism. The middle section even contains scenes that evoke the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly with regards to the official response to the danger levels of the toxic cloud.
The film is never less than entertaining, but it’s also let down by a third act that never really comes together. Essentially, the tone suddenly falters and it’s not quite clear what was intended – either way, the humour doesn’t work and there’s a confusing lack of tension or drama, leaving the final section feeling weirdly anti-climactic. Thankfully, there’s a joyous closing credits sequence involving a supermarket by way of compensation, ensuring that you still exit the movie on a high, while also probably contemplating your own death.
This review was originally published during the 2022 Venice Film Festival.