White Noise will debut in select theaters on Nov. 25, 2022, before hitting Netflix on Dec. 30.
Nothing is certain except death and consumerism. White Noise offers us both, not to mention a healthy dose of academic satire thanks to the weirdly charming and utterly oblivious Professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver). Based on the breakout novel by Don DeLillo, White Noise is a very specific slice of Americana, heightened and amplified to absurd proportions with Driver’s enjoyable overacting and a keen, joyously over-written script by writer and director, Noah Baumbach.
The Gladneys are at once an ordinary American family and also so far removed from the ordinary that it’s frankly absurd. Both Jack and his latest wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) are obsessed with death to the point that it preoccupies their lives and their relationship with one another. Their arguments over who will be more heartbroken if the other dies first punctuate the weirdness of their lives, but also offer a neat commentary on postmodern America… but I’ll get to that later.
Jack is a professor at the local College-on-the-Hill and a pioneer of Hitler studies. A rock star among both students and his fellow academics, Jack nevertheless hides his own feelings of inferiority under a veneer of over-intellectualism. Driver walks this line to perfection, portraying Jack’s rampant and infuriating scholarliness as the character’s deepest flaw – analyzing the meaning and context of a life-threatening situation rather than getting the hell out of Dodge. He’s both a flamboyant orator and a man almost crippled with self-doubt… and Driver wears both faces with unparalleled authenticity.
Equally, Gerwig is wonderful as Babette, the self-medicating wife whose constant preoccupation with death pushes her to unsavory ends, if only to find a cure for her “condition.” A soft voice and blank gaze project a harrowing vision of domesticity – Babette is often reduced to her role as caregiver and mother. Jack even waxes lyrical about the “point” of Babette being that she is joyous and doesn’t succumb to gloom or self-pity… completely waving away her own intellectual thoughts on the nature of life, death, and everything in between. Despite his dismissals, Babette is the glue holding the Gladneys together, and Gerwig approaches the role with a tenderness and restraint that feels fitting.
Of course, Driver is at his best when at his most flamboyant – a famous scene from the book in which Jack and his friend Prof. Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) deliver an impromptu joint lecture about both Elvis and Hitler is sublime. Satirizing the inadequacy of modern academia, it’s assembled with perfect comic timing by Baumbach and hilarious over-acting from Driver that emphasizes the ridiculousness of Gladney’s ego.
There are scenes like this through White Noise, the hilarious absurdity of its dialogue punctuating the absurdity of Gladney’s predicament. Baumbach’s script pulls no punches, capturing the essence of DeLillo’s novel with gusto.
For a film that’s preoccupied with big, existential issues, White Noise feels far lighter than it should. That’s not to say there aren’t some truly dramatic moments, especially in its second act, which sees the Gladneys’ hometown of Blacksmith under the ominous shadow of a toxic airborne event. There’s both terror and humor at the heart of White Noise, and that’s the whole point: holding a mirror up to contemporary America to see the absurdity of its own duality. Jack Gladney is a victim of his own privilege – the hubris of a white middle-class man in the face of disastrous events exposes an uncomfortable yet laughable truth. By taking the original story and ramping up the ridiculousness in a myriad of ways, Baumbach shows a subtle understanding of his subjects in the exact way that they themselves do not.
An impeccable score by Danny Elfman only serves to heighten everything we see on screen, from the weirdness to the tension, with B-movie-style moments that seem predictably ominous. The visuals all at once evoke a particular time and place while sitting laughably outside of it, amplifying the film’s ‘80s stylings to become a parody of itself.
The Gladneys as a family unit represent a hectic, vibrant slice of American life that’s punctuated with the banality of distressingly ordinary moments in the face of downright terror.
White Noise offers a postmodern take on the fumbles of humanity, with a laser-focused dissection of academia, consumerism, and even religion. Forcing us to face our own humanity using the Gladneys as a proxy, Baumbach takes DeLillo’s original story and exaggerates its proportions, which heightens and electrifies in equal measure. The commentary is sharp, the script is superbly over-the-top, and it might just be Baumbach’s magnus opus. Driver and Gerwig are in top form as their emotional crises reach breaking points, while Baumbach astounds and delights with this cutting tale of existentialism in a consumer-focused culture. White Noise is a hilarious dissection of postmodern expression, and it couldn’t come along at a better time.
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