Right from when the first trailer for Noah Baumbach’s next feature dropped, it was hard to decipher what exactly would the plot dabble in. Even though Don DiLillo’s 1985 novel of the same name is regarded as a cornerstone of postmodern literature, the writer of this review had not dared to pick up the over 300 page book and binge read it before the movie.
Entering the multi-culoured 80s world of White Noise without any idea can be a polarising experience. Some might find exploring the absurdly satirical attack on consumerist culture too chaotic and even slightly pretentious. But others might have a gala time on this unexpected ride of dramatising and exaggerating the mundane.
Unlike Baumbach’s other works (the more recent Marriage Story, The Squid and The Whale, The Meyerowitz Stories), White Noise marks the first time the screenwriter and director is dabbling in a story that is not his own. The aforementioned novel is often regarded as “unfilmable” by the ones who have read it so Baumbach already had a bunch of well-read bibliophiles ready to grab him by the neck even before the film dropped on Netflix on New Year’s eve.
But then again, Baumbach seems to be poking fun at the very such academics that cause much jargon-filled ruckus over anything and everything. The writer-director reunites with Adam Driver and his creative and romantic partner Greta Gerwig for a satirical take on academia, consumerist culture, and the human fear of death.
Driver sheds his washboard abs for what Gen-Zers call a “dad bod” as he plays a middle-aged professor who specialises in “Hitler studies”. Gerwig plays his wife who seems optimistic on the surface but has dark secrets of her own. Despite this being an adapted screenplay, Baumbach still tries to borrow influences from his previous filmography.
For instance, the movie is divided into chapters much like The Meyerowitz Stories (streaming on Netflix) and the central couple do have their fair share of marital drama similar to his previous Marriage Story (also on Netflix) and The Squid and the Whale (inspired by his own parents’ divorce). Throw in an environmental disaster in the mix and you have a perfect blend of human chaos that is comparable to the equally polarising Netflix comedy Don’t Look Up.
With the town going into quarantine mode following the disaster, it would be a cliche at this point to draw modern parallels with the pandemic. But Baumbach thankfully tries to turn his comedic epic into something much more than a pandemic allegory.
There is a lot to unpack in White Noise’s 2hours 16minutes duration. To put it in non-spoilery terms, there are discussions on sex, Hitler’s Oedipal complex, American capitalism, the act of urinating, Elvis Presley’s Oedipal complex and a lot more.
While Driver gets most of the juicy parts with some memorable monologues, Don Cheadle also shines in a supporting role as one of the protagonist’s academic friends. Throughout the film, audiences can find these academic pundits just bickering on and on about everyday activities only to arrive at conclusions that are vague or almost inconclusive. And it is this dialogue-driven satire that eventually serves as the “make or break” factor.
You can scratch your head like the professors and try to find a logical sequence behind each of the randomly-assorted vignettes that make up White Noise or you can just not pay too much heed to every little detail and enjoy the fakeness of the real world that White Noise tries to explore.
As for world-building, the 80s depicted in White Noise is not the sugary nostalgic Utopia that a Stranger Things episode would show you. Yes, there are plenty of colours and retro-tech to generate curiosity but thanks to the bleakness that Driver and Gerwig embody, the 80s of White Noise marks an era of uncertainty and gloom. Science is a recurring theme in the dialogues but instead of depicting this era of space-race and MTV as an age of wonder, Baumbach’s screenplay involves people squabbling over the origins of the ecological catastrophe and Gerwig’s character taking a mysterious drug among other instances of science (and pseudoscience).
After writing and directing 10 original features, Noah Baumbach’s #WhiteNoise is the filmmaker’s first adaptation, based on the 1985 Don DeLillo novel. Of what drew him to the material, Baumbach said, “I wanted to make a movie that was as crazy as the world felt to me right now.” pic.twitter.com/ZGO1FOeEer— White Noise Film (@whitenoisefilm) December 31, 2022
Ending a year of white male directors indulging in self-indulgence (James Cameron with Avatar: The Way of Water, David O Russell with Amsterdam, Damien Chazelle with Babylon), it is not surprising that despite all its merits, White Noise is also a heavily self-indulgent experience for Baumbach. With so much happening at once, White Noise is definitely not a peaceful watch. And the runtime will definitely wear on some, especially with hardly any breathing space as most of the scenes are filled with Baumbach’s usual brand of overlong intellectual conversations and Wes Anderson-like deadpan comedy.
In fact, it’s highly likely that you can get a hint of Wes Anderson’s aesthetically weird film universe as Baumbach has himself co-written two of his films (the very avoidable The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the pleasantly comic Fantastic Mr. Fox). But then again Baumbach is also the man who wrote the cinematic masterpiece that was Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted!
So, while White Noise is definitely worth watching, expect it to be as random as Baumbach’s screen credits. Because regardless of White Noise being good or bad, the majority will agree that it is random, very very random, right up to the end.
We’re going with 4 out of 5 stars for White Noise.