Noah Baumbach adapts the ‘unfilmable’ bestseller White Noise
Adapted from the award-winning satirical novel of the same name, White Noise is the latest film from Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story.) It sees him reunite with his frequent collaborators Greta Gerwig and Adam Driver for a multistranded piece of absurdity, as the Gladney family try to carry on with their mundane lives in the face of a life-threatening catastrophe.
From the opening scene White Noise has the feel of a classic Baumbach drama, introducing us to a relentlessly bickering family who talk over one another at a breakneck pace. Jack and Babette are each other’s fourth spouses and have combined their families, raising four headstrong kids under one roof. Jack is a professor of ‘Hitler Studies’ at the local university, and the whole family are obsessed with stories of carnage and destruction. Babette teaches fitness to local elderly people and is unreasonably obsessed with the idea of dying, pleading with Jack that she must be the one to die first.
That classic Baumbach tone then spins off in a markedly different direction. White Noise is split into three acts and the second sees a disaster strike the town as a train accident unleashes a cloud of deadly fumes. The ‘airborne toxic event’ forces the Gladney family to evacuate their home, and they must join thousands of others attempting to flee to safety under the pall of a mysterious cloud that blocks out the sun and cuts power lines.
It’s a strong ensemble piece led by Driver who is in his element as an oddly magnetic figure. He teaches his class in a ridiculously over the top cult leader like manner with a flapping robe and dark glasses yet comes home to be harangued by his family. He is resolutely relaxed and unbothered by any potentially dangerous news. Gerwig manages to be heartbreaking in her neurosis where she should just be annoying, yet it is the kids who may well be the standout stars of the film. White Noise introduces Sam Nivola as Heinrich and Raffey Cassidy as Denise – clearly smarter and more skeptical than their parents, it is a joy watching them run rings around the adults.
‘The event’ is quite clearly a prescient allegory for modern times, particularly reactions to covid, as the townspeople are forced to mask up against some sort of airborne illness. Sheer chaos unfolds during the evacuation, and when faced with quarantine all sorts of wild conspiracy theories pop up as people start to mistrust the media. Close to the bone yes but it’s done with enormous fun, Baumbach carving a cutting piece of societal commentary out of a book that was actually published over 30 years before this whole pandemic thing kicked off.
The toxic cloud itself is beautifully rendered; a physical, brooding thing that sucks in flashes of red lightening and stalks across the sky with proper menace. White Noise is filmmaking on a much grander scale than Baumbach has ever done before – whilst he still manages to fit in the devastatingly emotional, intimate arguments he has previously done so well they now sit alongside enormous set pieces with hundreds of actors. The evacuation scenes better than any disaster movie you’ll have seen in recent years.
Unfortunately, it all rather falls apart in the third act, which moves onto a different plot point as Jack and Babette reassess their lives and what’s important after their brush with disaster. There’s lots of thought given to attitudes towards death, but some of the climactic scenes are hard to follow and engagement is lost. Baumbach also can’t escape the fact that White Noise is an adaption of a book – which is to say that whilst it is very funny much of the dialogue doesn’t sound like anything anyone would ever say in real life. It doesn’t feel natural. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be jarring and will certainly divide audiences.
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Even with the flagging final act there is enough of interest in the centre portion of White Noise to make it worth watching, and enough in the final act for art students to analyse that I’m sure it’ll leave its mark. At times poetic, at others absolutely demented, this marks a bold new direction for Noah Baumbach. Make sure you stick around for the end credits scene, a bonkers celebration of American consumerism that’ll have you tapping your toe.
White Noise was reviewed as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It is out on 25th November 2022 before heading to Netflix on 30th December