'White Noise' Review: It Sucks

Noah Baumbach has given us a flimsy, synthetic movie, full of false prestige.

Wilson Webb/Netflix
Robert Rubsam
Toxic Events

How often do you come across a movie as deeply, thoroughly, expensively misconceived as Noah Baumbach’s White Noise? More than you used to, thanks to Netflix. But even last year’s vomitous Don’t Look Up did not leave me wondering: Is irony dead? What about literacy? For that, I guess we should be thankful. Because just about everything else here is a catastrophe.

Baumbach’s adaptation largely follows the contours of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel of the same name. Adam Driver stars as Jack Gladney, professor at the midwestern College-on-the-Hill, and inventor of what he calls “Hitler studies.” Jack is currently married to Babette (Greta Gerwig), a nominally stay-at-home mother to the various kids from their former marriages. Across the course of an academic year, Jack and Babette will confront, separately and together, the great fear of death which burns at the center of their small town existence, threatening to upend their marriage and the family they have cobbled together.

This probably sounds like the set-up to any number of dull mid-century novels of Middle American ennui, those many testaments to the egotistical WASP libido written by justifiably forgotten middlebrow New Englanders. But White Noise earns its National Book Award-assisted canonization. DeLillo is constantly inventing new forms of American absurdity, and then narrating them with an extreme deadpan. Academics speak gravely of pissing in sinks. An elderly couple shelter for days in an abandoned cookie kiosk at the local mall. A boy named Orest Mercator gives his life over to handling snakes inside of a cage, and fails within minutes. It’s bizarre, and chilling, and funny as hell.

DeLillo delivers this so precisely, and with a certain poetic clinicism, that we begin to experience reality much as his characters do: abstractly. His characters are rendered like figures in a Grant Wood painting, geometrically accurate but in a purely representative sense, ideas rather than people. He gives us the experience and the commentary at the same time. “This is the point of Babette,” Jack declares of his wife. “A lover of daylight and dense life, the miscellaneous swarming air of families.” He believes it, and she does too. This is the point of White Noise.

Baumbach adapts many of these conversations directly, often transplanting the dialogue with minimal deviation. But DeLillo’s post-modern prose clangs, horribly, off Baumbach’s disastrous stylistic decisions. He shoots White Noise with the gauzy glow of an Amblin film, or more accurately our contemporary idea of what 1980s family fare ought to look like, warmly lit and garishly costumed. There is a certain promise to this, in a theoretical sense: imagine one of Spielberg’s dramedies invaded by our post-modern derangement.

But Baumbach commits to this approach in scare-quotes; we are watching an “80s film,” not a film that actually represents the 1980s. His sets are flimsy, full of brightly branded cereal boxes and awash in pastels. He drapes his characters in the sorts of gaudy tracksuits that we, the contemporary audience, associate with the decade, rather than the sort of clothes a professor and his wife might actually have worn. And worst of all his actors deliver their absurd dialogue with a faint smirk, as if to say: isn’t consumerism wild? Only Don Cheadle and Andre Benjamin make their jokes sing, because they are playing the least self-aware people on the planet (academics).

Maybe Baumbach is doing this intentionally. After all, does this not sound like an ironically ’80s-style movie about an ironically ’80s-style America? But without energy or a real perspective on the material, his bad costumes and bright colors reduce it to the level of kitsch, and his own style to a facile pastiche. You can sense him straining to conform DeLillo’s novel to the limited cinematic language he’s constructed around it, and frequently choosing the cliché. If you pick up the book today it remains exciting, hilarious, profound. Baumbach’s film already seems flimsy and dated, like a prefabricated house brought to market too late.

Take the Airborne Toxic Event. A 60-page highlight in the middle of DeLillo’s novel, the Event tears the Gladneys out of their bucolic idyll and throws them onto the road, at first ignoring and eventually struggling to outrun the potentially cancerous cloud created by a toxic waste spill. In the novel, the Event begins at the local trainyard, beginning as a tiny accidental spill before billowing up and up into a near-Biblical catastrophe. But the Gladneys only view it from a distance, getting all of their information from the radio and from Jack’s son Heinrich, who watches it through binoculars from his nest in the attic. What the thing is, whether it’s dangerous, how they should respond; the novel answers these questions with further conjectures, so that, when they eventually return to their daily lives, the truth of their mass traumatic experience remains essentially theoretical, just more information delivered by experts and accepted for lack of any ability to understand on one’s own. You have to do as you’re told, because who are you to know any better?

Baumbach stages the spill as a grand train wreck, in which a drunk driver rams his tractor-trailer into train cars carrying a highly dangerous chemical while reaching for his flask. There’s no greater menace to the accident, no sense of industrial laziness or governmental incompetence. It’s goofy, a cut-rate Spielberg impression that misunderstands the Event’s purpose in the story. This only worsens as the section goes on, full of crowd scenes that Baumbach sloppily choreographs, blurry images smashing against one another without an ounce of chaos or horror, or even humor. This ought to be the film’s centerpiece, the illustration of his themes blown up to apocalyptic scale. Instead, as with so much of his film, Baumbach gives it almost no dramatic or emotional emphasis. It’s just another thing that happens, in a long run of stuff happening.

To his credit, Baumbach actually excises some of the novel’s most indelible moments. He seems to understand that much of the novel’s power resides precisely in its presence as text, in which description, rather than representation, is paramount. There’s no Most Photographed Barn in America, no “Toyota Celica.” These moments gesture at a near-metaphysical world of signs and symbols, reading transcendence into the capitalist esperanto of corporate rebrandings and talk radio ads. They take seriously the invasion of everyday life by self-help and cable news and the random scraps of junk language that will drift through the narrative: “Mastercard, Visa, American Express.” The effect is haunting, saddening on an existential level. Perhaps Baumbach understood that he could only debase them, that putting them into the mouths of those actors in these wigs would constitute a kind of insult.

Unfortunately this did not stop him from adapting the book, or from making a series of terrible revisions in the story’s home stretch. At a certain point, Babette tearfully confesses that she has slept with a medical scientist in return for an experimental pill that will supposedly cure the fear of death. Master of divorce that he is, Baumbach can’t help but stage this as a teary confessional, an emotional winnowing that reduces their relationship to a cliché. Suddenly this is a marriage story, and one that must end with either the destruction or reconsolidation of the family.

It gets worse. When Jack goes off in search of the scientist, he finds a man gobbling his own pills and spitting up reams of randomized junk language: news snippets, TV catchphrases, magazine pull-quotes. He has become legible but useless, like a cistern retaining cultural slurry. In the novel, Jack’s clinical narration is repeatedly punctured by the man’s exclamations, which DeLillo integrates into a seamless piece, one unbroken monologue of American incomprehension. It’s very funny, and hauntingly sad, and deeply unresolved.

And then, in one of the most dispiriting artistic decisions I can remember, Baumbach has first Jack and then Babette comment to the audience on the man’s verbal collage. It is the choice of a director who has very little trust in—and an astonishing degree of contempt for—his viewers. We can no longer be trusted to locate the absurd, to parse irony, to interpret meaning for ourselves.

Baumbach has given us a flimsy, synthetic movie, full of false prestige. This is the idea of a film, the movie as a junk concept. If it has any value at all, it will be as an inadvertent illustration of precisely the same cultural pollution that White Noise first diagnosed three-and-a-half decades ago. It is little more than ambient noise, empty, easily dispersed.

Robert Rubsam writes fiction and criticism.