Review: WHITE NOISE, Calculated Comedic Chaos and Commentary

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig tune in for Noah Baumbach’s existential ride.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
Review: WHITE NOISE, Calculated Comedic Chaos and Commentary

“Bonkers,” in recent times, has become an overused term, and therefore one is mindful to sidestep it whenever writing these reviews.  

But for Noah Baumbach’s big-budget family circus/story randomizer, White Noise, one is inclined to lift the ban.  It’s positively, utterly, indubitably, sidewidingly, bonkers.  

What else is there to say about the world’s biggest tragi-kooky domestic head-scratcher to roll down the pike in 2022?  There’s that, and I guess we can also say it’s one of the best films of the year.  Sure, why not.

Based on the same-titled 326-page postmodern thunderhead novel of 1985 by Don DeLillo (First Printing ISBN 0-670-80373-1; Dewey Decimal # 813/.54 19, but natch), Baumbach’s film (which he wrote) is, one assumes, appropriately zag-ziggy.  Set a few years prior to its own publication (per a movie house marquee, it’s whatever year the movie Krull came out), White Noise focuses on the trials, tribulations, toils, and troubles of the Gladney family.  

The Gladneys are a sizable clan, the patchwork result of three prior marriages apiece for the central harried but loving couple, Jack (Adam Driver) and Babette (Greta Gerwig).  They exist in a state of verbal cacophony that lives up the film’s title.  They also go to the supermarket a lot.  Their supermarket looks like something out of David Byrne’s True Stories, with the occasionally pulsating tempo of the mundane to match.  I’d shop there, if only for the dancing.

Jack is a university professor -- the foremost expert on Adolf Hitler, we’re told -- who dresses up in a black academic robe and blue tinted shades to deliver his lectures.  He looks like some sort of vampiric 1980s Jeff Goldblum, but I suppose most of us university lecturers have our teaching costumes of choice.  He can go ahead and own this one, which he does.  

Other times, when Jack’s not at school and therefore without confidence, he momentarily resembles Harry Dean Stanton or even a bewildered Harrison Ford.  (Seriously, Driver didn’t look this Harrison Fordian when he was playing Harrison Ford’s son in those Star Wars movies).  

It’s apropos, insofar as Jack doesn’t really know who he is.  Despite being thought of as “brilliant” by his teaching peers (though one breaks it down saying that they all call each other brilliant because they don’t know what else to say), he’s one very frazzled man.  Eventually, when he finds himself caught entirely up in every kind of contrived scrambling movie chaos, his bumbling inner Clark Griswald emerges.  (A few loving pokes is nothing Mr. Spielberg can’t handle.  Baumbach’s homage/spoofs are weirdly perfect).

Babette is a loving wife in the midst of a barely veiled existential crisis of some sort.  For that, she’s become a pill popper.  But what the heck are these mysterious pills she’s taking?  Even in an age of bland generics and rampant synthetic foods, no one’s ever heard of the pill’s name on the container.  They are from no stated pharmacy.  So what are they, and what secrets do they hold?  Or, more aptly, what are they for, what do they do, and where the heck do they come from?

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It’s hard to pursue such questions when your head is in a cloud, and midway into White Noise, Jack wanders into a doozy.  Somewhere across town, a truck full of hazardous chemicals has a fiery run-in with a train hauling deadly gas (or vice versa… or something).  And despite what fellow cultural analyst Professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle, playing it with über-confident obliviousness; the character wishing more than anything that he could be the foremost academic expert on Elvis like Jack is on Hitler) says about the consequence-free beauty of filmed vehicular collisions in movies, this one takes its toll.  

A creeeeeping, looooooming gas cloud forms and floats and freaks out family members who are glued to the local news for updates.  (Select Gladney offspring are portrayed by Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, and May Nivola.  All are fully tuned in).  They can sorta see it from the roof.  And then, just that abruptly, White Noise’s story as we knew it (for whatever it was worth) is derailed as everyone is evacuated to a dingy holiday camp.  

Along the way, a main character may or may not have suffered terminal exposure to the airborne phantom menace.  What ramifications will be suffered because of this?  To get those answers (though, don’t hold your movie-loving breath), we first must ride out the literal toxic storm.  It’s always something in these movies…

Whatever the situation -- and situations in White Noise are as amorphous as its story (don’t even ask for a plot) -- Baumbach makes sure that it never doesn’t live up to its title.  Are the incessantly chattering Gladneys truly “a family of geniuses” (a situation close to The Squid and the Whale filmmaker’s heart), or do they simply embody still waters refusing to find level?  

Suffice to say, White Noise isn’t like the other movies.  More of a witty narrative contraption than any kind of conventional film, it nevertheless stands tall.  Not in spite of the former, but because of it.  Baumbach generally knows what he’s doing, and now he’s proved that he knows exactly what to do when Netflix drops a supposed $150 million “Hey, thanks for Marriage Story!” budget in his lap: adapt one of those unfilmable rambling intellectual novels, naysayers be damned!  

White Noise is Baumbach-basted DeLillo delirium that’s smart enough to drive its 1980s-born (though relevant now, sure sure) social commentary via its own core formalism as opposed to, say, quick shots of Ronald Reagan giving a speech on TV and lazy needle drops of A-ha and/or Modern English.  We do, however, have Oingo Boingo’s own Danny Elfman providing the sometimes ominous, sometimes corporate video-esque score, which is some rollicking fun on its own accord.

In the 80s, being as truly bonkers as White Noise wasn’t a big fat virtue.  Maybe it’s still not?  Then again, we love to come up with new ways to suppress and mass-market existential dread, inner anxiety, and feelings of impending doom.  So, here we go.  One may emerge from this film feeling as though they’ve seen stranger things, but nothing much is as gloriously, jocularly confounding as whatever this is.  

The film is now playing in select theaters and will start streaming December 30 on Netflix.

White Noise

  • Noah Baumbach
  • Noah Baumbach
  • Don DeLillo
  • Adam Driver
  • Jodie Turner-Smith
  • Greta Gerwig
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Adam DriverDon CheadleDon DeLilloGreta GerwigNetflixNoah BaumbachJodie Turner-SmithComedyDramaHorror

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