Noah Baumbach Crafts A Callow But Enjoyable Tribute To Pre-Millennial Neurosis [Venice]

Dec 18, 2022

Man, the 20th century really thought it was something, didn’t it? Thankfully, in the middle of the 1980s, just when Western (read: American) culture was fully losing the run of itself in a frenzy of gum-snapping consumerism and prescription narcotics, Don DeLillo‘s “White Noise” appeared — you might almost say manifested — as a mischievous, mindbending 326-page reminder to the century that it wasn’t, in fact, all that. Now in 2022, Noah Baumbach brings us his canny but callow adaptation of that landmark novel, turning it into an amusingly curated museum of pre-millennial neurosis – one that’s undeniably enjoyable to walk around, freakishly well-made and weirdly dedicated to making the viewer feel like the last forty years or so never happened. 
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But happen they did (I know, I was there), and, bar a very vague allusion to pandemic panic, this adaptation of “White Noise,” has very little to say about them. So the film, clearly in love with the book exactly as it was written, turns what was once a lacerating work of acutely relevant satire into a peculiarly anachronistic act of untroublesome, absurdist escapism. Even postmodernism can feel cozy and old-fashioned from a post-postmodern vantage point and try as he might, Baumbach can’t quite succeed in erasing the intervening decades and the revolutions they’ve seen. The internet has changed so much, even the way we despair, making the analog dilemmas the characters face in — ironically — this Netflix film seem just a little quaint. It’s a bit like watching a bunch of highly verbal dinosaurs in leisurewear rut and tussle with each other while above them, an unnoticed bright spot in the sky keeps getting bigger. They’re doomed, but not for the reasons they fear.
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These particular prehistoric creatures roam a late-20th-century suburbia closely adjacent to the one we all grew up in (it is said there are sentient adults walking among us who were not born in the 1900s, but that seems unlikely). Jack Gladney (Adam Driver + paunch) is a middle-aged college professor in the field of Hitler Studies, which he pioneered. (Here already the datedness shows: the idea of a university department engineered for the ambivalent, sometimes straightforwardly awestruck investigation of the Nazi leader’s cult of personality was funny in 1985 because it was unthinkable. Currently, it’s all too thinkable, ergo, less funny.) 
Jack is the fourth husband of his fourth wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig + perm), and together they live in a rambunctiously blended household with the offspring of various of those unions: mordantly intellectual Heinrich (Sam Nivola); watchful, spiky Denise (Raffey Cassidy); precocious but fearful Steffie (May Nivola); and sleepy toddler Wilder, a sweet, tousled little boy whom Babette wishes “would stay exactly as he is now forever.” Possibly because he’s the only one who never contributes to the family’s cacophony of overlapping, cross-purposes chatter, the scenes of which are among the film’s best, so rapid-fire and rat-tat-tat and delivered by all comers with such deadpan authority that it’s almost possible to miss that most of what is being said is, deliberately, twaddle. 
Like the novel, the film is divided into three sections. The first section sets up Jack’s home and professional life and introduces his colleague Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle, delightful), a professor of cinematic car crashes — which he insists belongs firmly in the “long tradition of American optimism” — who is hankering to set up an Elvis Studies program, and thereby to do for The King what Jack has done for the Führer. The second section is aptly titled “The Airborne Toxic Event” and follows the literal and psychological fallout of a chemical explosion near the Gladneys’ suburb, which forces their evacuation. And the final part details Jack’s reaction to Babette’s increasing addiction to a mysterious drug called Dylar and to the revelation that in order to secure her supply, she has been sleeping with her procurer, a shady character known only as Mr. Gray (Lars Eidinger, greasy).
The heightened, theatrical register is hardly what Baumbach, usually a scrupulous naturalist, is best known for, and the arch throwback vibe is a million miles from the jangling immediacy of his terrific “Marriage Story.” Yet his clever, reverent adapted screenplay does manage to streamline the book’s sprawling stream-of-consciousness logic without betraying its loopy, careening energy, and to condense the character list and the spaghetti tangle of subplots into a manageable package, making “White Noise” a sort of classy cinematic Cliff Notes. But that also makes it a hard sell twice over: it may feel just too familiar for the book’s fans, and too offputtingly zany in its zigzag tone for the wholly uninitiated. This is hardly your standard Netflix fodder, and if it doesn’t connect, it will no doubt quickly come to be seen by the streamer as further proof that prestige-y auteur passion projects are, in fact, Notflix.
And yet the movie is stippled with dizzying moments and inspired set pieces that give out pops of pleasure like bubble wrap at regular intervals across its 136 minutes. There are visual jokes like when the Gladneys’ maroon station wagon hits a trash can exiting the driveway, just as their fleeing neighbors had done a minute prior, and as they zoom away, a witty high shot (and DoP Lol Crawley‘s use of Spielberg-ian crane moves is an essay in the recreation of a 1980s vibe all by itself) reveals that actually, every trash can on their now-deserted street has met a similar fate. There are offbeat action sequences, like when Jack accidentally drives into a river and the car, inexplicably floating like a boat, pings, and dings off rocks while its trapped occupants hold their breath. Best of all, thanks especially to the radically shifting tempo of Matthew Hannam‘s bravura editing, there are crazy builds in energy, as when Jack and Murray’s slam-poetry-style lecture cross-pollinates Hitler and Elvis in a dazzlingly daft way, while also intercutting a speeding train of lozenge-shaped chemical tanks and a drunken trucker heading for the railway tracks with a flammable load… One airborne toxic event, coming right up.
The cast is pretty uniformly great, as Driver pivots effortlessly from hapless schlub to hurt husband to performer-professor exuding the charismatic zeal of a televangelist. Gerwig benefits from Babette’s role being slightly beefed up here, especially in one monologue scene in part three, which threatens momentarily to make “White Noise” actually a little moving. But mostly, watching these characters tease out their problems is fun but from a far remove, and satire at such a safe distance starts not to really feel like satire anymore. By the time the end credits roll round, and the whole cast does a joyous musical dance number in the Day-Glo aisles of the local supermarket, even though it’s set to a brand new LCD Soundsystem track, it feels like we’ve heard this song before. Then again, if the idea of supermarkets as latter-day temples to consumerist decadence feels so familiar as to be kind of a soft target, maybe that’s because we, unlike the Jack, Babette, Murray, et al. of the movie, have been living in the world “White Noise” made for 37 years already. [B]
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