3.5 out of 5 stars

There’s a lot happening simultaneously in White Noise, both literally and thematically. Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of what was long thought to be an unfilmable Don DeLillo novel has characters talking over each other, like in a Robert Altman movie, and its themes and plot points stacked atop one another precariously.

Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a professor of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill, and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) are raising a pile of kids in a typical suburban college town in 1984. Heinrich (Sam Nivola) and Steffie (May Nivola) are from two of Jack’s previous marriages, while Denise (Raffey Cassidy) is from a previous marriage of Babette’s, and Wilder (twins Henry and Dean Moore) is a child they had together. But their lives are upturned by a series of unfortunate, bewildering situations, beginning with a train accident that causes an “Airborne Toxic Event.”

Driver, in his fifth collaboration with Baumbach, turns in typically expressive and evocative work. He continues to be one of the most interesting actors working today. Gerwig steps back in front of the camera for the first time since launching an extremely successful directing career, and while she seems an odd choice for the role, unsurprisingly she came through as the film’s emotional anchor.

The children all give strong performances as well, with Cassidy being the only one of the four to have any feature film experience. Sam and May are the kids of married actors Emily Mortimer and Alessandro Nivola, and the latter steals many of the scenes where the family are all together talking a mile a minute about several different topics at once.

The cacophony of (white) noise and ideas will be too abrasive for some, but I enjoyed watching Baumbach play in a new sandbox. After the major awards success of Marriage Story (2019), Netflix gave Baumbach a near-blank check, which you can because White Noise looks particularly expensive when compared to the mumblecore-adjacent films of Baumbach’s filmography. And he takes full advantage of the extra money by playing around with different genres like horror, disaster, crime, and even musicals. The train derailing sequence leading into the “Airborne Toxic Event” is downright Spielbergian. I didn’t realise Baumbach had this filmmaking prowess.

Thematically, there’s a lot to chew on in White Noise, much of which I hesitate to dive into due to spoilers (of a nearly 40-year-old book, but still). One topic that can be touched on is Jack’s teachings on Hitler. Like Netflix’s other big, splashy release Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, with its ignorant billionaire plot points, this thread couldn’t have been explored at a more pertinent time.

Driver gets to be the centre of one of the movie’s key scenes in a duelling lecture sequence with his co-worker Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), who teaches Elvis studies. Students and professors from across campus watch enthralled as Jack unleashes his performative knowledge on the audience. They treat him like a rockstar. It’s not as show-stopping as Driver’s “Being Alive” scene in Marriage Story, but it’s the highlight of the movie.

As great as the performances from the family are, Jack’s fellow professors—Siskind, Winnie Richards (Jodie Turner-Smith), and Elliot Lasher (Andre Benjamin, aka Andre 3000 of Outkast)—feel a bit wasted. I assume the characters are more fleshed out in the book, and the actors understandably jumped at the chance to work with such an acclaimed director, but these vibrant performers are mostly sidelined.

This fact falls in line with the feel of the movie as a whole. White Noise has a lot of interesting ideas and impressive sequences, and I’m genuinely excited to dive back in and see how it plays during a second viewing, but it’s not the most cohesive of experiences. The disjointedness certainly seems purposely… but to what end? I’m not entirely sure. But the positives outweighed the negatives for me. But mileage will vary.

USA UK | 2022 | 136 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH GERMAN

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Cast & Crew

director: Noah Baumbach.
writer: Noah Baumbach (based on the novel by Don DeLillo).
starring: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, André Benjamin, Jodie Turner-Smith, Lars Eidinger, Sam Nivola, May Nivola & Chloe Fineman.