January 28, 2023

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Noah Baumbach impales our fear of death

This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 New York Film Festival.

The Pitch: Don DeLillo’s White Noise is one of those “great American novels” that was long thought unfilmable, a distracted, acrid exploration of late American capitalism and its relentless need to share movies, culture, conversation, and so on with the to distract from the inevitability of death. And frankly, it’s oddly fitting that the filmmaker who would eventually come to terms with it would be indie darling Noah Baumbach himself: like DeLillo, he also deals with the fits and foibles of academia, the crumbling nature of family, the ways and Way we cling to ephemera just to keep us from falling apart.

And so it is with this three-part tale of the Gladney clan, a nuclear family poised to go metaphorically (and in some ways literally) nuclear. There’s Jack (Adam Driver, pot belly and butt face), a “professor of Hitler studies” who doesn’t speak German but wants to make a name for himself at the Midwestern Liberal Arts College, where he teaches. His wife Babette (Greta Gerwig, who rocks a voluminous perm) is a raving mother to her four children (most of whom are from previous marriages as they are both divorced) and sneaks in secret white pills whose origin and nature are a secret for her family.

And then there are the kids, from the proactive, pragmatic Heinrich (Sam Nivola, son of Alessandro; his sister May plays younger child Steffie) to curious Denise (Raffey Cassidy), both of whom lack their parents’ penchant for distraction and anxiety.

Like most Americans, they’re a family inundated with information, most of it trivia, but welcome distractions from the ever-salacious nature of reality. Jack never feels more alive than when he engages in a “lecturing duel” with fellow student Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) to convince his students that “Elvis is the new Hitler.”

Then, when an “air poisoning event” looms over their neighborhood, he further minimizes the threat until they can no longer avoid evacuation, leading them to a traffic jam where they gauge how concerned they should be by reading people’s facial expressions in it, the station wagons scan around them. No matter how bad it gets, you can breathe a sigh of relief. After all, that didn’t happen to them.

White Noise (Netflix)

There’s Always Extra: White Noise is both quintessential Baumbach (the grainy film look, familiar cast and quirks) and a notable departure from his usual. While The Meyerowitz Stories and Marriage Story feel like odes to Robert Altman’s naturalism, White Noise’s flights of fancy and odd textures share DNA with Tim Burton, the Coen Brothers and even David Byrne’s winning True Stories. The latter is particularly true in its depiction of the squeaky-clean fluorescence of the grocery store, the ultimate altar of consumption (and therefore immortality), topped by an over-credits musical number set to a new song by LCD Soundsystem.