Noah Baumbach returns to Netflix as the writer/director of a new family drama, White Noise. The film, based on Don DeLillo’s brilliant 1985 novel, concerns a chemical meltdown that causes chaos and inflames tensions among a quirky small-town family in the ’70s. It bears a superficial resemblance to his prior family drama, Marriage Story, about a couple in the midst of a bitter divorce, which, like the new film, also stars Adam Driver as the family’s patriarch. Unlike that Oscar-winning film, though, White Noise features none of the relatable characters or situations. It plays more like a passion project full of inside jokes and “look at how clever I am” moments. The end result surely makes a loud sound, but shrill and deafening are not exactly recipes for cinematic success.
Driver plays Professor Jack Gladney, a “Hitler historian” at the local university. His wife Babette (a tremendous Greta Gerwig) uneasily keeps a household that boasts four children, including cute little Wilder and three others from Jack and Babette’s three prior marriages (each). The sextet ambles about in their own worlds but also together, in a beautifully adorned house that is meant to be both claustrophobic as well as inviting, with tokens evoking the era sprinkled throughout. Each of the Gladneys has a distinct personality, as demonstrated by physical quirks (Babette, for example, keeps popping mysterious white pills, the purpose of which is not revealed until later in the film), or by their constant chatter and banter — noisy, showy, and even ostentatious.
Perhaps the title White Noise refers to the fact that the Gladney family talks constantly, typically in a strident manner and over each other. Maybe it refers to the fact that the soundtrack is brilliantly littered with an ambient sound that is never clear but is ever constant — the outside world, the electronics in the house, the clamor of the neighbors. The point, as it was in DeLillo’s novel, is that the post-modern world is full of stimuli, replete with temptation, desire, and doubt. Baumbach’s script is mostly faithful to these ideas, but an overlay of his own clever style pushes the already challenging material well past its breaking point.
White Noise is a dark comedy where jokes can be as tender as they may be garish. Repeated allusions are made to Jack’s profession — repeated mentions of the “H” word that, is, together with historical lessons and reenactments meant to make the audience uncomfortable. Jack and Babette are starting to age (Gerwig is Baumbach’s real-life partner) but are still hot for each other, as evidenced in tender sex scenes that also provoke discomfort. The problem isn’t that these characters are not in love with each other, but that Baumbach is too in love with his own version of them.
After a while, it becomes painfully apparent that the emperor of this film has few clothes. Jack and Babette, at times with the help of their four children, or of Jack’s collegiate colleague, Professor Murray (an excellent Don Cheadle), wax poetic about life and its many delicious ironies. The script remains fast-paced, a rat-tat-tat-tat of dialogue, one-liners, ideas, and moments. It is undoubtedly clever, moody, and at times depressing when it reflects on the pointlessness of life. But it is all just too much. As the relentless babble continues at a breakneck pace past the film’s first hour without the semblance of either a plot or a single thread to unify all these threads, it becomes all too easy to stop caring or paying attention altogether — you literally start to tune White Noise out.
Eventually, a semblance of conflict outlines itself on the horizon in the form of a noxious plume of chemical smoke emanating from a toppled railcar. Literally, a toxic cloud threatens the not-so-quiet idyll of the Gladneys and their community, leaving them and everyone else scrambling frantically for the exits. But this does not really change the tone of a picture that has unfortunately perverted itself from quirky to tedious. Jack and Babette’s self-absorbed (but also caring) demeanors continue, with the children and the scared denizens providing the titular noise, all in service of Baumbach’s desire to continue stringing admittedly slick but by now unimpressive prose.
The best that can be said about White Noise at this juncture is that Baumbach flexes a little bit more directorial muscle here, as the film doesn’t exclusively rely on the strength of his writing or the film’s performances, as his prior work (Marriage Story, The Squid and the Whale) did. Here, Baumbach embraces more technical challenges with the help of Cinematographer Lol Crawley, whose photography offers a somber but sufficient color palette that conveys the ennui of middle-class living in post-modern America. The toxic cloud lends an additional layer of color diversity to the proceedings, and since the characters’ flippant dialogue becomes boring, it also lends a pretty visual on which to focus. Meanwhile, persistent dreamlike sequences permit Editor Matthew Hannam and the visual effects team to show off some clever use of fade-ins and juxtapositions. These scenes are really Jack and Babette’s imagined insecurities brought to life, and they again shine, if only for the technical prowess behind them.
In the end, then, Baumbach’s dabbling into the world of tech-heavy films was not entirely a waste. He remains a plainly gifted director who knows how to extract impressive talent from those around him, both above and below the line, in this case. What White Noise needed, and what he should look for in his next film, is some restraint of his own excessive instincts, or a story more grounded in reality. After all, White Noise may be fine as ambiance, but what moviegoers are responding to of late is direct, loud, and clear engagement, which this film is too unclear to deliver.
White Noise premiered at the New York Film Festival and is now playing in select U.S. theaters before it begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 30.