‘White Noise’ Movie Review – What Went Wrong With ‘White Noise’?

Adapting a beloved novel is not easy—let alone one as distinctly stylized, tonally bipolar, and relentlessly digressive as

Don DeLillo’s seminal work of postmodern literature, 1985’s White Noise. Jack (or, J.A.K., as he’s known at school) Gladney’s first-person account of a year at the College on the Hill turned upside down by an airborne toxic event is a grim, farcical meditation on the inescapability of death. It’s also about the universal impossibility of suppressing the fear of our mortality—try as we might with the distractions of consumerism, family life, and mass media. Yeah, not exactly the stuff of Marvel movies.

So you have to give it up for Noah Baumbach. He took a book many people said was unfilmable, and frankly, filmed the shit out of it. Every frame is interesting, every camera movement and bit of blocking considered. White Noise‘s background is a rich tapestry, brimming with color, texture, and detail. (See: UFOs on a gas station’s TV, shadow puppets on a tent at the refugee camp.) For a director who has heretofore worked exclusively in the realm of low-to-mid-budget interpersonal dramas, Baumbach proves more than proficient at action setpieces. He fjords a station wagon, lets loose a magnificently ominous billowing cloud, makes spectacle out of a traffic jam. The truck-train crash that sets off the airborne toxic event is one of the most visually stunning things I saw in a movie last year.

And it’s not just the translation of words to images. Baumbach’s White Noise is occasionally quite funny, too. Don Cheadle (as professor Murray Jay Suskind), in particular, makes song out of DeLillo’s dialogue, juicing lines like “Hitler is now Gladney’s Hitler” and “All white people have a favorite Elvis song” for all their elevated absurdity. The joint lecture Suskind and Gladney give juxtaposing Elvis and Hitler as fellow momma’s boys is a high point for the film, with the two professors slowly circling each other in an ironic joust of high-minded academese.

Really, there are many individual moments within the film that are admirably executed, if not full-on cinematic achievements. It’s an adaptation that’s remarkably faithful to the book, so it shouldn’t disappoint fans on grounds of fidelity. And yet, in total? The film is not so much challenging as it is frustrating. Baumbach’s film never quite gains narrative momentum or hits home emotionally. There’s the sense of it being less than the sum of its parts, which is ultimately perplexing. What exactly went wrong here? I found myself thinking after walking out of a screening. Here are a couple theories.

Did Noah Baumbach Miscast Jack and Babette?

Casting Adam Driver as Jack and Greta Gerwig as Babette makes a lot of sense. Throw dark glasses and a receding hairline on Driver. Give Gerwig sweats and big hair, and each actor more or less matches the physical descriptions of DeLillo’s characters. The two actors have shown chemistry together in previous movies. At this point, they’re Baumbach’s two closest collaborators—and, of course, they’re also two of our greatest working actors.

White Noise wants to be fun, but it’s missing a catalyst. In this case, making a film about death do.

But whereas Cheadle is able to bring DeLillo’s unnatural dialogue to life, Driver and Gerwig flatten it. They each inflect their speech with a dry, melancholy affect that’s a little too cute to have much emotional resonance. You could argue that that’s the point: their characters’ morbid obsession—coupled with the overbearing stimulus of American life—has drained them of feeling. But we as viewers shouldn’t be left impassive. There are moments in the film—Jack’s nightmare, and when he steps onto the roof to look at the plume of smoke—that are meant to communicate the characters’ anxiety. But in Driver and Gerwig’s hands, that anxiety is never palpable. The actors don’t infect us with their dread. And without feeling that fear of death, Jack and Babette’s concerns lack resonance.

Does Music Kill White Noise‘s Momentum?

The emotional disconnect goes beyond White Noise’s two leads. The magic trick DeLillo pulled off was making the book at once authentically dark and raucously comic. In Baumbach’s film, both qualities—especially the former—are muted. That relative dullness may in part be due to the film’s subtle use of music.

Baumbach tapped Danny Elfman for a minimal score that sonically foregrounds the white noise of contemporary (or now, semi-contemporary) life: the domestic bickering, the hum of appliances, the constant chatter of the television. The score functions as a nod to the music you’d hear in the blockbuster fare that dominated the ’80s. As Elfman told Variety, “Early on, [Baumbach] said, ‘I want to have an ’80s electronic influence, an electronic influence, but not overtly specific. Imagine if we were combining something somewhere between Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream with Aaron Copland.'” The score they wound up with is passable as pastiche, but the music does little to amplify the film’s fun moments and heighten its chilling ones.

The music—or lack thereof—also, I suspect, stunts the film’s momentum. For a film that constantly sets its characters in motion—bounding around the house, perusing the supermarket, fleeing town, pursuing violence—White Noise stops and starts more than a Chevy stuck in a river. The tension and adrenaline teased in the film’s LCD Soundsystem-sountracked trailer never quite translates to the film itself. (Or, at least, it doesn’t until LCD’s “new body rhumba” kicks in during the credit sequence.) The second half of the movie, in particular, drags. It’s not for lack of action. An affair is revealed! A gun is shot! White Noise wants to be fun, but it’s missing a catalyst. In this case, making a film about death doesn’t justify it lacking life.

That said…

Please, streamers and studios, keep investing in this kind of ambitious, non-franchise movie—whether from Baumbach or one of his many talented peers. White Noise may not totally stick the landing, but even the ways in which it fails are more interesting than big-budget fare as of late. I, for one, would love to see Baumbach get a chance to crash some more cars.

Max Cea is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in GQ, Vulture, and Billboard, among other publications.   

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