Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise is the kind of book that earns review quotes like “Mordantly funny and ultimately moving,” the book critic’s way of chortling knowingly while also making sure we know he’s taking this thing seriously. Noah Baumbach’s movie version of White Noise—the opening-night film of the 79th Venice Film Festival—is knowing and self-serious in the same way, a movie about the American condition, whatever that is, that feels beamed in from the planet of the chuckling beard strokers. It’s hard to know how seriously we’re supposed to take any of it.
The movie, like the book, is set in a middle-American college town in the 1980s, with a main character, Jack Gladney (played by Adam Driver), whose specialty is Hitler studies—he proudly invented this line of study in 1968 and has been rolling with it ever since. He lives in one of those comfortable academic’s houses, sporting floral wallpaper and lots of natural woodwork, with his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their children from previous marriages, plus one son they created together. Their life is mundane and uneventful, if talky. Then a toxic cloud drifts into their environs, prompting mass evacuation and, worse, existential thoughts. This is a story about the fear of death, the nature of love and our purpose as sentient organisms in a consumer society. Or something like that.
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Baumbach adapted the novel himself, and he hews closely in tone to DeLillo’s book, alerting us clearly when it’s supposed to be drily funny and when we might be moved to shed a thoughtful tear. Driver’s Jack loves his life, though he seems afraid to admit it, preferring to spin out intersecting lines of questions and observations. When a student in one of his classes—he’s a professor at a school with the winkingly generic name College on the Hill—asks about Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed plot to kill Hitler, he responds with a soliloquy as twitchily superior as a pince-nez: “All plots move deathward. This is the nature of plots.” Later, as a guest in the classroom of his colleague, Murray (Don Cheadle), he and his friend launch into a call-and-response lecture linking Elvis Presley and Hitler in a web of similarities that’s confident but dumb. Both loved dogs! Both had mothers who smothered them! These are the kinds of thoughts generated by people with too much time on their hands, or by academics brought to life by writers with too much faith in their own cleverness.
Jack also loves his wife, though he doesn’t fully understand her. Gerwig’s Babette is good-natured, a little flaky, a robust figure of womanhood in her jogging outfits. She and Jack have the kind of jaunty-but-serious conversations people have in books, wondering aloud, for example, which of them will die first. “Life is good, Jack,” she tells her husband as the two lie entwined in bed. “I just feel it has to be said.” Much of the movie’s dialogue comes straight from DeLillo, to the point where the actors seem to be reciting memorized language rather than acting. Meanwhile, the children who are old enough to speak do a lot of it. (They’re played by Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, and May Nivola.) They chatter away, asking so many questions that most go unanswered; they also proffer information and misinformation about things like what, exactly, camels store in their humps. They represent the precious chaos of family life, the very thing that’s threatened not just by the kind of “airborne toxic event” that sweeps into Jack and Babette’s comfortable little town, but by the secret that Babette has been keeping from her husband, one whose revelation sends the movie tumbling into intentional absurdity in the movie’s final act.
The hope, maybe, is that the audience will respond properly to the film’s mannered yuks and take cautious pleasure in its “life is good, sort of” resolution. Baumbach is clear about the fact that this is an adaptation of a book that’s now almost 40 years old: he stylizes everything, from the squirrelly spirals of Babette’s hairdo to the brisk yet soothing color tones of the college cafeteria. It all seems a little unreal, by design—everything feels signaled rather than felt, which is true of DeLillo’s book, too. The effect is distancing to the point of smugness. Baumbach even ends the movie with a supermarket ballet, a riot of color and movement set amid aisles chock-full of all sorts of things money can buy. This is the American way, the movie seems to be saying, and that’s OK. Or if it’s not OK, it’s just the way things are, so may as well go with it. It’s hard to know exactly what Baumbach is going for here, other than perhaps reminding us that the key to living is just going about your life. But you probably don’t need two hours and 16 minutes’ worth of movie to tell you that.
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