Noah Baumbach directs a smug & obvious adaptation of Don DeLillo’s wry social satire.
What makes a novel “unfilmable”? Often, it’s because it’s simply too large in scope and scale, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which depicts the lives of seven generations of the same family. Or, as with Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, it’s too dense and labyrinthian. The more successful attempts, such as Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and Netflix’s adaptation of The Sandman, have been filmed in multiple parts, while failures like 2017’s The Dark Tower condense the story down to its most basic components, checking off the most salient points (“there was a tower, it was dark”) and nothing more.
Don DeLillo’s 1985 social satire White Noise has long been deemed unfilmable, but Noah Baumbach finally took a crack at it, and the result is a film that is easier to appreciate than actually like. DeLillo’s remarkably prescient novel not only skewered 80s consumerism, but also depicted a life-threatening “airborne toxic event” that forced its characters to confront their nagging fear of death head-on. While Baumbach’s adaptation is faithful, often funny and features excellent performances, there’s something off-putting about it as well. Like last year’s Don’t Look Up (while not quite as obnoxious), there’s a self-satisfied tone that suggests it was written by a filmmaker who thinks he’s telling his audience something they don’t already know.
Adam Driver is Jack Gladney, a renowned professor of “Hitler Studies” (though he only has a rudimentary grasp on the German language). Though Jack is a dynamic classroom speaker (so much that a crowd of applauding students rapturously encircles him after a lecture and all but boost him up on their shoulders), he’s often distant and ineffectual in his personal life. He’s on his fourth marriage to Babette (Greta Gerwig, emphasis on “wig”), who in turn is on her fourth marriage as well, and their passel of children mostly just bicker with each other and ask endless questions, few of which Jack and Babette make any real attempt to answer. Jack can’t even initially muster up more than hapless befuddlement when it becomes clear that Babette is becoming addicted to a mysterious prescription medication called Dylar, which seems to be eating away at her memory.
Nearly the entire family, even the kids, is preoccupied with their own looming mortality, and so they fill their days with meaningless chatter and the buying of things they don’t need to distract themselves from it. Thinking about death does not prepare them for the very real possibility of it once the above mentioned airborne toxic event happens, however, and their attempt to flee to safety, caught up among thousands of other equally panicked (or misinformed, or actively harmful, or all three) people, is the highlight of the film, even if the real life version of it isn’t such a laugh riot. Jack has no choice but to snap out of his self-involved bubble and protect his loved ones, even if world destruction appears to be imminent.
The third act of the film, when the family is abruptly given the all-clear and permitted to return home, becomes a baffling mystery, as Jack finally decides to uncover what’s going on behind Babette’s addiction to a medication that, for all appearances, doesn’t actually exist. Though the reveal of who’s (or, what’s, from another perspective) behind the distribution of Dylar is eerie and suggests that Death is an all but sentient being always lingering in the shadows, everything ends on a strangely hopeful note, but by that point the viewer is more than ready to just wrap the whole thing up.
Though it’s a departure in style and genre for Baumbach, White Noise is not a poorly made film. It effectively captures the hollow glossiness of the 80s, a period of history that preached conformity via mass consumption far more aggressively than the 50s ever did. Though Adam Driver is as good as he always is, Greta Gerwig does much of the heavy lifting, playing a character who could easily be a cliché of a flaky white suburban mom with depth and sensitivity. Both Jack and Babette, infuriatingly free of any real problems, seem to be creating things to complain about, and yet even by the end they remain mostly likable and even occasionally relatable.
The issue is that the film strains under the weight of its own unsubtleness, as exhibited in such scenes as Jack and Babette’s toddler-age son affectionately kissing a supermarket display of Kraft macaroni and cheese like he’s greeting an old friend. Sprawling, colorful but sterile supermarkets play a big part in White Noise, as Don Cheadle, playing Jack’s colleague in academia, goes on ponderous monologues about how vital the illusion of choice is to the American experience. While this was undoubtedly a daring insight in 1985, when White Noise was published, now it’s obvious and smug. “Look at these sad suburbanites trying to compensate for the emptiness of their lives by buying seven different kinds of cereal! How sad!” Baumbach’s script seems to be saying, as if “sad suburbanites trying to compensate for the emptiness of their lives by [BLANK]” isn’t an entire film subgenre by itself now. In short, it lives down to every stereotype of the out of touch, snobby urban creative who wouldn’t recognize suburban life if he tripped over a lawn gnome.
“Unfilmable” or not, the stranger aspects of White Noise aren’t the issue. If anything, in an era of Sorry to Bother You and I’m Thinking of Ending Things it’s the absurdist comedy and sci-fi undertones that make it worth watching. The challenge was carrying over DeLillo’s wry and incisive observations from page to screen in a way that didn’t make them seem merely pretentious, and Baumbach missed the mark. Worse, the mannered dialogue of the novel sounds stilted and unnatural when spoken by actual human beings. This was likely intentional, in keeping with the surreality of the plot as a whole, but it also keeps the audience at arm’s length from the characters. Were it not for the life and soul Driver and Gerwig put into them, Jack and Babette would come off like aliens dressed in the human skins of a bumbling college professor and his unhappy wife, stumbling around as they learn how to be “normal.”
White Noise premieres on Netflix December 30th.