Venice 2022

White Noise review – Noah Baumbach’s satire is smart and unsatisfying

The director's adaptation of Don DeLillo's 1985 novel, opening film at this year's Venice Film Festival, proves to be a bit of a mixed bag

The 1985 novel White Noise by Don DeLillo, a satire of culture, consumerism and academia, has long been considered “unfilmable.” Well, it has now been filmed, proving that theory wrong in the literal sense, though maybe right in another. The writer-director is Noah Baumbach, best known for his sharp and witty films about millennials and marriage, here adopting a change of pace to give us something far spikier and scattershot, a kind of “domestic dystopian drama.”

Overlapping conversations overwhelm the soundtrack in White Noise, which is dialogue-heavy and grappling with more ideas than any one film could possibly hope to manage, set in a strange and sterile vision of American where consumerism is king and death is the ultimate obsession. People are always talking but rarely listening here, less in control than they are controlled by the places and products they surround themselves with. Many of them think they're happy.

For Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), death is the subject that keeps him up at night. He’s a successful professor of Hitler studies at the banally named College-on-the-Hill, where pop culture and nostalgia have been elevated as the highest form of academia. At night, he and his wife, Babbette (Greta Gerwig), lay awake and talk (fantasise?) about the impacts of their deaths on each other's lives. Then an “airborne toxic event” triggers a  panic close to the suburban town where Jack, Babbette and their family reside, forcing them to flee with their four kids – played by Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola and May Nivola – in tow.

The themes of DeLillo's book, and therefore this adaptation, still resonate. With a plot strand dedicated to a lethal and rapidly spreading threat, it's hard not to draw a comparison between the nuclear anxieties of its nearly forty-year-old source material and the predicaments of our current COVID era. Namely, its depiction of a world with a tendency to ignore the warning signs only to later find itself pushed into the realms of the uncertain.

Yet in spite of the apocalypse incident at the centre (and the marketing), White Noise is not really a disaster movie. Yes, there are guns, car crashes, and a large-scale explosion involving a train. But the movie ultimately unravels as something more absurd and experimental that wonders how we're able to live in the constant shadow of death, and as an exploration of the ways we placate ourselves – both individually and collectively – in order to simply get by.

Packed with ironic details, both verbal and aesthetic, and hinged on a number of satirical set-pieces (the best of which has Driver delivering a rousing talk about Hitler to a rapt audience of students), the film moves through a hodgepodge of tonally dissonant scenes in a way that certainly feels purposeful (the novel was hailed for its mish-mash of styles) but is never exactly satisfying – or enjoyable. The aim, presumably, was to create something equally funny and frightening, though the deadpan approach to the comedy here mostly falls flat, reducing White Noise's impact as a piece of biting satire.

Driver is a highlight as Jack, a professor of slowly crumbling ideals, playing him with a good mix of caricature and catharsis, perfect for a contradiction of a man who's terrified of death but then tries to play down the severity of the “airborne toxic event” for fear of shattering life's cosy facade. The same can't really be said for some of the other cast members, who struggle to find a similar balance: Gerwig, unfortunately, gets a bit lost in the fold, her more subdued and naturalistic acting style never quite syncing with the heightened tone, while Don Cheadle – playing another professor at Jack's college – is swallowed by the weight of the material.

In cinematographer Lol Crawley's hands, the film has a unique visual sheen, especially in supermarket-set scenes where colours pop and the aisles are made to look eerily enticing and retrofuturistic. But Baumbach’s soft directorial style – perhaps not the best match for a movie that should ideally induce a bit of a shock to the system – drains out any real tension or drama from the piece. And while the dense, intellectual tone can feel inspired in an age of watered down adaptations, the film occasionally pontificates to the point of tedium. White Noise has a lot to say that's worth listening to – it just can't sustain the sound of its ideas across an overlong runtime.

White Noise was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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