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‘White Noise’ Is the Sound of Disappointment

Don DeLillo’s postmodern classic has long been regarded as impossible to adapt. Noah Baumbach’s attempt for Netflix does nothing to change that.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

“It is possible,” writes Don DeLillo in his 1985 novel White Noise, to be “homesick for a place even when you are there.” It’s a beautiful line that distills something true and troubling about human nature—the perpetual and unrequited longing that shadows even our happiest moments, exposing a gap between despair and fulfillment that’s deep enough to drown in.

Now the line doubles as a review of Noah Baumbach’s much-anticipated adaptation of DeLillo’s masterpiece. In a year without a clear Oscar front-runner, the presence of an expensive, pedigreed epic taking on big, weighty themes would seem auspicious. The bad news is that White Noise is a botch. For those who’ve already read the book, watching Baumbach’s film is less like seeing a classic come to life than bearing witness to a cautionary tale that makes you wish you could return to that first experience in your mind’s eye. Meanwhile it’s hard to say what the people who haven’t read the novel—which is to say, the likely majority of viewers who’ll be guided toward it on Netflix whether by hype or algorithm—will make of the movie. If they make it through it at all, that is.

In its broadest outline, White Noise is a story about a blended family whose lives are briefly but profoundly uprooted by an “airborne toxic event” caused by a chemical spill outside a small Midwestern college town. The resultant pollution threatens to turn the heartland into Three Mile Island (the book was published the year before the meltdown at Chernobyl, giving its disaster elements an uncanny prescience). Forced to evacuate their home alongside their neighbors and sequestered together in their wood-paneled station wagon, DeLillo’s protagonists spend much of the novel under a literal cloud of fear—a condition that puts a witty spin on the post–World War II cliché of a “nuclear” family. When the threat finally dissipates, the characters return home only to find that the fear of death has followed them there. Some late intrigue involving a mysterious and addictive designer drug drives the plot forward a bit further, but for the most part the book idles furiously inside its characters’ heads, giving voice to anxieties about life, death, and the great beyond. Conveyed through DeLillo’s insidiously engaging style—all short sentences and deadpan declarations—these worries become contagious. You don’t read White Noise so much as get infected by it.

The sublimely paranoid qualities of DeLillo’s writing are what has led him to be labeled as a kind of literary prophet—a gonzo sociologist to put on the postmodern syllabus alongside Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, and Thomas Pynchon. Those qualities are also what makes translasting his material to the movies so difficult. Not many filmmakers have tried, and the only one who’s really succeeded so far is David Cronenberg, whose 2012 movie of the mock-epic Cosmopolis leaned smartly into its source material’s staccato artificiality. Baumbach, on the other hand, is a bad fit for DeLillo, albeit in an interesting way. His signature is a sort of thorny, gentrified realism, and his films are filled with academics, artists, and commentators who make their living pulling meaning out of texts; they’re the kinds of people who probably keep DeLillo novels on their nightstands. Think of Jeff Daniels’s droning, oblivious novelist in The Squid and the Whale, who’s never read a book he can’t reduce to a pompously tossed-off opinion; or the culture vultures dropping names and recommendations throughout everything from Mr. Jealousy to While We’re Young. But while Baumbach is a smart enough reader to understand White Noise, he’s not a fluid enough filmmaker to capture its epic, immersive surreality, or to manage its wildly digressive yet ultimately thin plot. Instead of connecting to the bewilderment of the characters, we feel the strain of the filmmaker on their—and our—behalf. On some level, the effort to wrestle White Noise into a functional cinematic shape is heroic—a worthy challenge for a dialogue-bound filmmaker to flex some new visual muscles. But it’s also thankless, a 136-minute struggle session without any catharsis at the other end.

Perhaps in anticipation of its own sense of fatigue, White Noise starts with a bang, or rather a series of them. We open with Don Cheadle’s wacky college professor, Murray Siskind, giving a direct-to-camera seminar about car crashes—more specifically, the perverse idea that in movies, automobile accidents manifest “a long tradition of American optimism.” Siskind is not the movie’s protagonist, but Cheadle, with his elegant timbre and wry, surprising line readings, is ideally cast as a DeLillo-an orator. His performance makes for an amiable entry point into the writer’s deadpan intellectualism. The montage framework lets Baumbach and editor Matt Hannam play smartly with action-movie stock footage—the assemblage is like a short video essay—but soon the point of view shifts to that of a different tenured eccentric, Adam Driver’s “Hitler studies” expert Jack Gladney, and the air goes out of the film.

This deflation isn’t the star’s fault—at least not fully. Driver may be the most talented leading man of his generation, equally gifted at conveying coiled, spring-loaded emotions and hollowing himself into a muscular blank; his hulking yet malleable physicality makes him credible as a swaggering bully and a sensitive introvert. What he can’t quite do is seem cerebral. Even in Marriage Story, in which he played a thinly veiled stand-in for Baumbach—a “genius” theater director used to critics and colleagues genuflecting in his direction—he finessed the performance to give the character a lurking fit of impostor syndrome. But for White Noise to work, Professor Gladney has to come off as the kind of deep thinker who can hold a student body in thrall, and Driver never quite inhabits the character’s pretentiousness. The same goes for Greta Gerwig as Jack’s wife, Babette, a closeted pill-popper whose anesthetized condition cuts the actress off from her usual screwball impulses. Her presence here works better as a self-reflexive evocation of her and Baumbach’s personal-and-professional relationship (the structuring absence of Marriage Story) than as a way of embodying a tremendously complex seriocomic character. Gerwig has one long, hypnotic monologue when she gets to inhabit Babette’s spacey desperation, but for the most part the script reduces her to an afterthought.

None of Jack and Babette’s children belongs to them both biologically; the same restlessness that’s led them each to create and dissolve a series of disposable households before arriving at a Brady Bunch–style integration of their dependents is what makes them soulmates—as well as avatars of the privileged indecision that DeLillo’s story means to diagnose. In a book filled with metaphors—including those careening, kamikaze car crashes and Babette’s psychoactive medication “Dylar,” whose very name hints at fears of death—the most obvious symbol in White Noise is the supermarket, described on the page as a “pathway” or “gateway” toward fulfillment. The irony is that while Jack and his colleagues see the supermarket for the gaping, late-capitalist Moloch that it is, they’re as eager as anybody else to let the question of which cereal they want distract them from some deeper, gnawing terror. Baumbach tries to visualize the Gladneys’ shopping excursions in colorful compositions that echo the pop art profundity of vintage Jean-Luc Godard. Instead, though, they come off as smug, I-Heart-the-’80s kitsch that safely insulates the images away from our current moment.

Working with his first-ever blockbuster budget, Baumbach is determined to put the money on-screen, whether in those gleaming supermarket interludes or the faux-Spielbergian carnage of the airborne toxic event, which recalls passages in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (The film’s burnish is deliberately evocative of Spielberg in suburban-Fableman mode.) Such showmanship wouldn’t be a liability except that DeLillo is so judicious about what he does and doesn’t show in the book that the movie’s most spectacular images—like a massive train wreck or the jagged flashes of neon lightning hovering over the Gladneys’ car—come off as missteps that are antithetical to the text’s rigorous ambiguity. Meanwhile, the things that Baumbach deliberately chooses to omit, like the “Most Photographed Barn in America”—a dissertation-ready symbol of an image-saturated culture that’s widely considered one of DeLillo’s greatest hits—will be missed by diehards, even if that’s beside the point when it comes to the film’s more overarching failures. Put simply, it’s hard to be glossy and arch at the same time. The few filmmakers who have managed the trick—like the Coen brothers, whose A Serious Man contained elements of White Noise—do so via an uncanny tonal precision. Baumbach tries to have it both ways, to suck us into Jack and Babette’s existential terror while placing it in scare quotes, and he ends up in limbo as a result.

The feeling that White Noise is too much without being enough is confirmed by the film’s closing set piece—a supermarket flash mob set to LCD Soundsystem’s new single “New Body Rhumba.” In a way, Baumbach and LCD’s James Murphy are perfectly suited to each other: canny, talented hipsters packaging neurosis as catharsis for the smart set. And the song, which sounds a bit like David Byrne circa 1986’s lovely musical comedy True Stories (a movie of real social vision) is catchy in just the right casual, affectless way. Look, I’m not made of stone, and it’s fun to watch White Noise’s cast—including marginal supporting players like André 3000 and Bill Camp—dancing stone-faced to the song while pantomiming lobotomized commodity fetishism. But “fun” isn’t nearly enough. In lieu of a genuinely striking or unsettling coda—or any sort of authentically emotional grace note—Baumbach resorts to knowing, smirking detachment; a goofy throwaway for its own sake. There’s a fine line between trying to say it all and saying nothing, and for all its sure-footed choreography, White Noise’s epilogue trips all over it, the final stumble of a film trying to cover too much terrain with two left feet.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.