Movies · Reviews

‘White Noise’ Entertains Despite Its Occasionally Uneven Feel

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig are the highlights of Noah Baumbach’s latest film.
White Noise Netflix
By  · Published on October 2nd, 2022

As part of our coverage of the 60th annual New York Film Festival, Will DiGravio reviews Noah Baumbach’s latest film, White Noise. Follow along with more coverage in our New York Film Festival archives.

The 60th New York Film Festival kicks off with Noah Baumbach’s latest film, White Noise, a sleek, fully-loaded work that marks the first adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name for the big screen. While not the filmmaker’s best film, White Noise certainly works and may be his most ambitious project to date. The film marks a noticeable development in Baumbach’s oeuvre, namely how the director brings the feel of a big Hollywood production like this one to the screen. The film’s $80 million dollar budget shows, and while much of the film is intensely entertaining, one may walk away wondering if less, in fact, could have been more.

Proving once again Martin Scorsese’s view that he may be the finest actor working in American film today, Adam Driver plays Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill. He and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), who teaches courses on posture to community members, have each been divorced multiple times and live with their four children, all but one of whom is from a previous marriage. On the surface, all would seem well. But we soon see that Babette frequently takes a mysterious pill. And Jack, who wakes up in the night after a terror, has something weighing on his mind. The lives of everyone are upended after an accident leads to a massive chemical cloud over their town. The Airborne Toxic Event, as it’s called, leads to an evacuation. From there, the film’s pace only heightens.

With a clear reverence for the source material, a seminal work of postmodern fiction, Baumbach succeeds in turning the written word into a cinematic spectacle. White Noise has a tremendous rhythm. It balances more themes and plot points than one could list: life, death, family, apathy, the nature of existence, and capitalism. Like the book, this is a film about big ideas, a satire that pokes fun at the big wigs who spend their days pontificating about theory and the like. One could imagine the characters of Baumbach’s debut feature, Kicking and Screamingin the audience of a lecture by Professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), an expert on Elvis Presley. Similarly, the Jeff Daniels character in The Squid and the Whale would fit well among the College-on-the-Hill faculty.

From a bird’s-eye-view, White Noise follows a fairly standard Hollywood plot structure. On one level, there are big events and bigger questions. On the other are the Gladney family dynamics and, in particular, Babette’s pill intake. Baumbach never quite finds the balance between the esoteric and the familial. It is especially disappointing given that Baumbach has shown how well he can depict inter-family strife, whether in The Squid and the Whale or his most recent film, Marriage Story. The film gets lost in these moments.  It is far more concerned with the spectacle and pastiche at play. It ultimately works, but it is this imperfect balance that holds White Noise back from being a truly great film.

Having said all that, the performances of the Gladney’s eldest three children (Raffey Cassidy, May Nivola, and Sam Nivola) emerge as three of the film’s best. Befitting the film’s title, Baumbach has said that he wanted their seemingly endless chatter to play like a radio. Their background musings, jokes, and fears give the film a necessary rhythm and pulse. Baumbach’s dialogue-have script works marvelously. Characters are always talking, talking, talking. But the camera remains dynamic enough that one does not mind. Eye and ear can wander separately or together through a range of sounds and images at any time.

Viewers may be up late into the night debating the best scene of White Noise. But at the top of most lists should be the one between the characters played by Driver and Cheadle, who milks the most out of his limited screen time. The two professors give a somewhat impromptu, simultaneous lecture on Elvis and Hitler. In a masterfully choreographed sequence, the duo talks about these two men with the same intensity and rigor. The blending recalls the film’s larger themes of consumption, memory, and the ways in which our perception is often altered by media. The two deliver a performance as if they were on the Broadway stage. And in a way, perhaps they are. There is a musicality to the scene that runs throughout White Noise and, indeed, so much of Baumbach’s work.

The great joy of watching the film, though, is Gerwig and Driver. Gerwig’s comedic chops are on full display in the role of Babette. Her timing, especially when discussing, or rather deflecting the topic of her pills, is impeccable. In these moments, Gerwig also maintains just the right amount of melancholy needed for the character. And it pays off during the film’s intense final chapter. As Jack, Driver finds the perfect balance between self-important academic, caring if occasionally imperfect husband and father, and just generally paranoid human. He is funny, scared, all-knowing, and confused. Sometimes, he is all at once. It is one of his best performances to date.

On the whole, White Noise falls short of meeting a similar balance. But in the end, it is a strong adaptation of a work many said was hopelessly non-cinematic. And for that, we must tip our caps. All viewers will find something to appreciate about White Noise. 

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.