It’s best to approach “White Noise” knowing nothing about it.
The newest feature from writer-director Noah Baumbach played at the 2022 Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), where fellow filmmaker Boots Riley presented Baumbach with the MVFF Award for Screenwriting. The film, slated for Netflix release Dec. 20, is a hearty and shambolic adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, starring Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig.
“White Noise” follows college professor Jack Gladney (Driver), his wife Babette (Gerwig) and their four children. In their sitcom-snug house, the Gladneys live quaint and simple lives. The children explore new interests and challenge their parents; the house seems aglow with the liveliness of growing up. Parents go to work, roll shopping carts through supermarket aisles and come home to dinner with cheeks full of chicken.
The magic of “White Noise” sparkles in moments of shared joy between the filmmaker and the viewer. In his MVFF acceptance speech, Baumbach called screenwriting the loneliest part of filmmaking, but “White Noise” proves the fruits of such labor can be sweetly shared. He approaches dialogue like a jewel cutter, turning a tender and lucid eye to relationships and human connection. Family mythology is familiar territory for the filmmaker, but in this film, it is merely the bedrock for the myriad twists and turns to come.
White noise refers to a sound that contains many frequencies with equal intensities. It’s an overwhelming, numbing sensation that mirrors the way in which DeLillo’s story ripens into unruly gardens of Babylon. “White Noise” moves between genres like a frog hopping on lily pads — with admittedly uneven success — skipping from family drama to disaster film to noir.
In the eye of the hurricane, Driver, Baumbach’s frequent collaborator, captains the film formidably, like a coal miner with tenure. Driver and Gerwig work as an onscreen couple precisely because their chemistry feels earnestly offbeat. While Babette effuses charm and humor, Jack isn’t the kind of dad who makes corny puns or barbecues in flip flops. He teaches Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill, performing lectures with fanaticism and waving his ballooned faculty robe sleeves; the film seems privy to the peculiarity of his expertise, especially since he also takes German lessons on the side, but curiously attends to it with gravity.
Jack’s impassioned lectures on the Hitler run like cautionary tales. If one squints, there’s frayed subtext about the state of academia, but that line of thinking eventually becomes one of the many overdetermined subjects that sits in the film’s beer belly without metabolizing.
Baumbach’s film embraces themes of scope and significance like a vacuum sucking up dust bunnies. Unfortunately, it sometimes sucks the viewer into an opaque fog, as audiences can grow exhausted trying to keep track of the film’s flip book of signs and symbols.
This sense of construction, of Baumbach’s invisible hand, pervades the film, but it’s most successful when his attention attunes to artistry rather than ideology. As the movie squirms into new genres, the lighting and focal points shift to reflect the new mood — the ominous black cloud that hangs over their car, the neon lights illuminating the dingy hotel room. The images in the film conjure suspense and conceal secrets as life turns upside down in the wake of an environmental disaster.
In a different filmmaker’s hands, DeLillo’s novel could have rung cheap, pandering to the pandemic and its aftershocks. But Baumbach sculpts the script as a capsule of the past, putting character before plot to duck beneath low hanging fruit. His strategy refreshes the story and imbues “White Noise” with a capacity to endure. If tenors of today are heard, they ring like discovery, an insight from the viewer rather than a filmmaker’s prescription.