Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise has routinely been dubbed an “unfilmable” work, just ask Barry Sonnenfeld. But the new eponymous adaptation by Noah Baumbach, soon to arrive on Netflix, disproves that notion by accident. If grafted to a 2022 film landscape somewhat literally, then yes, White Noise is anything but piercing in how the source material’s distinct prose delivers biting, memorable great American satire. But underlay a smooth musical track and whip-dash editing to update the story to film, and you have something approaching brilliance. So, why does White Noise save its own redeeming qualities for its ending musical number and irresistible trailer?
For many years, Baumbach has stood apart from his main contemporaries Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze with lovingly smart New York pictures reveling in modern absurdity disguised as grounded drama. In White Noise, he borrows Anderson’s monotonous fact-filled yammering to match DeLillo’s book, but also the structure and shape of a Spike Jonze music video to some extent. To the point where one has to wonder if that was the original conceit. Because White Noise is a series of interconnected vignettes that crumple when stitched together matter-of-factly into some kind of purposeful narrative.
“They’re calling it the Airborne Toxic Event.”
It’s the sad case of a movie that seems to have had everything going for it leading up to the first shot. The entire cast is blessed. Baumbach clearly has a passion for the story he wants to adapt. The Netflix funding came through, so the production design is immaculate. The script to page has no shortage of wit and unique set pieces, particularly a university “lecture rap battle” between Adam Driver and Don Cheadle that astounds in its audacity. But you get the sense that partway through filming, even Baumbach must’ve realized that this wasn’t quite working for some magical, mystical, unexplainable reason.
Something just doesn’t translate, and it’s a tragedy of expectations and effort. Absolutely no one here misses their mark. Greta Gerwig’s Babette showcases the performer at her true best, wavering between her endlessly big heart and ultimately human soul. The child actors, ranging from Raffey Cassidy (Vox Lux) to May and Sam Nivola (real-life children of Emily Mortimer and Alessandro Nivola), hold their own and then some alongside the more seasoned actors at the helm.
And yes, it’s Adam Driver once again, just on time for awards season. This year sporting a frumpy, aged-up costume of graying hair and hunched posture. The twice-nominated actor is clearly destined for an Academy Award sooner rather than later, but White Noise won’t bring him the gold this time at bat, though not for lack of trying. In the years since Paterson, arguably his best performance of them all, Driver has sunk himself deeply into his work, finding characters underneath the characters in the script, but generally coming up short due to the limitations of whoever happens to be the calling the shots on his behalf. Perhaps Driver should try a hand at directing his own film to turn things around.
The bottom line.
If there was a perfect time to release a film like White Noise, it would probably be right this second. A story about trying to handle the overwhelming complexities of everyday life in an uncertain world plagued by external circumstances that no one quite understands, running up against the brutal binary of technology and a rising indifference of history? True, it also would’ve worked to make this movie in 2002 like the original plan, but here we are.
I have no doubt that White Noise will collect a passionate cult following in the years to come, eagerly sipping its off-kilter world and all its trappings without an ounce of regret. There’s no better way to adapt the novel in that respect, after all. For the rest of us browsing Netflix this New Year, maybe we’ll watch a sitcom, or something.
White Noise will be available to stream on Netflix starting December 30. Watch the trailer here.
Featured image courtesy of Netflix.
WHITE NOISE - 5.5/10