The Mind-Boggling Grandeur of White Noise

The film is sharply funny, eerily timely, and loaded with movie stars. So why is this blockbuster-size event falling flat?

A car of screaming people in "White Noise"
Netflix

Only now, in this moment in Hollywood, would an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s award-winning novel White Noise by the indie darling Noah Baumbach be funded like a blockbuster. After all, the film isn’t going to make any real money—even though it’s been playing in a few theaters for more than a month, it had its wide release yesterday on Netflix. But for years, the streamer has financed many a master filmmaker’s risky passion project. Hence the giant scale of Baumbach’s vision: DeLillo’s droll satire of ’80s existential ennui has the expansiveness of a twinkly Spielbergian adventure.

Baumbach has made two of the best movies of his career for Netflix, and the cast he’s assembled here—including Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, and Don Cheadle—is top-notch. Given all of this, plus the fact that his source material is a near-canonical piece of literature, one might figure White Noise for an awards juggernaut, or at least a solid contender. Instead, White Noise debuted at this year’s fancy film festivals to mostly tepid reviews. It’s arriving online rather quietly, as an end-of-year oddity rather than an instant magnum opus.

White Noise is without a doubt a carefully made movie that tries gamely to give flesh to the unsettling spirit of DeLillo’s work, which many have deemed “unadaptable” over the years. I think that label is a little overstated, and Baumbach apparently does, too, because he’s imposed a fairly clear three-act structure and given the film a soaring score by Danny Elfman that crosses eerie synths with Aaron Copland–esque grandeur. The adaptation takes the tale of a 1980s family dealing with the aftermath of a local chemical accident and gives it the vibe of a classic Amblin movie. Of course, that dissonance is part of the novel’s parody, too, and maybe why White Noise feels so confounding—though not unrewarding—to watch.

DeLillo’s story takes stock of the hyper-capitalism of mid-’80s America. It deconstructs the bucolic lives of the successful academic Jack Gladney (played by Driver in the film) and his wife, Babette (Gerwig). Unable to enjoy the suburban splendor around them, they fixate on their fears of death and vain attempts at self-improvement. Baumbach does his best to infuse his film with mundane dread, but for the viewer, existential horror can be easily confused with a lack of energy.

A family shopping in a grocery store in "White Noise"
Wilson Webb / Netflix

Still, White Noise’s first act is filled with the kind of snappy, overlapping dialogue Baumbach excels at. Jack fends off the sarcastic children in his blended family, works to learn German to lend legitimacy to his post as a professor of “Hitler studies,” and assists his fellow academic Murray Siskind (Cheadle), who’s attempting to launch a similar department centered on Elvis Presley. In one virtuoso sequence, Jack and Murray deliver simultaneous Hitler and Elvis lectures to the same rapt audience, trading back and forth on two very different 20th-century personality cults. Baumbach’s visual fluidity, and his camera’s awed dance around the lecture hall, is a joy to behold, given that he’s tended to work on a smaller scale.

That sequence crosscuts with a train accident that releases a deadly cloud of chemicals into the atmosphere—the catastrophic “airborne toxic event” that makes all of Jack and Babette’s fears of mortality suddenly feel much more urgent. Here, the film comes alive beyond its knowing satire; Baumbach wisely makes the ensuing terror a massive, nearly hour-long set piece—by far his loftiest thrill ride yet. The Gladney family watches the news with mounting concern, and then eventually hits the road along with everyone else in town. After getting caught in a miserably long traffic jam, they proceed to a quarantine center, where every directive from the government is as baffling as it is hopelessly mismanaged. It’s funny and surprisingly unnerving stuff.

The film also manages to feel contemporary without ever dropping the throwback aesthetic. Baumbach knows he’s making this movie for an audience that has suffered its own airborne toxic event, and he brings out little panicked details that ring uncomfortably true. Jack’s initial efforts to downplay the size of the disaster, both to reassure his children and himself, are heartbreakingly relatable. Though much of the ensuing drama pokes fun at Jack’s absurd efforts to be the family’s protective alpha male, Driver is terrific at conveying the joke without entirely losing his character to it.

White Noise’s final act, in which the Gladneys try to return to their normal lives, is the toughest knot to untangle. For its challenging conclusion, the book intentionally goes inward, delving further into Jack and Babette’s insecurities. Baumbach, however, can’t switch from the film’s exaggerated tone to something more personal. The last showdown is loaded with sentiment but still painfully arch, which is probably why the film should be remembered simply as a curiosity—a fascinating adaptation that cannot overcome the scathing ridicule built into its source material. In this potentially waning age of prestige projects underwritten by Netflix, I certainly understand why Baumbach leapt to the challenge of making White Noise. Unfortunately, a graceful ending eluded him.