Movie: “White Noise”
Release date (theatrically, streaming): Nov. 25, 2022, Dec. 30, 2022
Director: Noah Baumbach
Runtime: 2 hours 16 minutes
Genre: Comedy, drama
Columnist's rating: A-
Noah Baumbach’s "White Noise" is the most exciting and radical swing from a Hollywood director in 2022. The film, based on Don DeLillo’s 1985 book of the same name, is a portrait of the middle-class American lifestyle and the existential horror that comes along with it.
Baumbach is a filmmaker known for a stripped-down approach, with a focus on dialogue and character that he writes himself – often with his wife and star of "White Noise," Greta Gerwig. With his latest effort, he’s upped the scale tenfold, telling a story that features ecological disasters, medical conspiracy plots and car chases.
Baumbach has never worked on this scale before, but pulls it off beautifully. The film is structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, of couple Jack (Adam Driver) and Babette (Gerwig) trying to reckon with the reality of impending death. Jack is an idiosyncratic professor who founded a nationally renowned Hitler studies program, and Babette is his quirky but supportive wife.
Babette tries to find solace in the world of medicine with a mysterious drug named “Dylar,” which cures her fear of death. Jack, who becomes infected with an unspecified disease, is more content with his fate but still questions his existence.
Most of these ideas are communicated primarily through metaphor and imagery. Getting on the same wavelength as Baumbach and his leads is difficult, but there is a ton of dark humor to mine from their incessant ramblings.
The film opens with a chaotic sequence of them and their four kids preparing for the day, but the dialogue and action are layered like a scene from "Uncut Gems." It’s an uncomfortable feeling that puts the audience in the right headspace for the film in an off-putting and alienating way.
In that regard, it’s insane that Netflix reportedly had an $80 million budget for a film that will be obtuse to anyone who hasn’t read the book. There is no conventional narrative, although there are some popcorn thrills to be had during the film’s bigger setpieces.
Some standouts of the film are Lol Crawley’s cinematography and Jess Gonchor’s production design. They give this alternate reality, 1980s world a real pop.
Another highlight is the new LCD Soundsystem song featured on the soundtrack, “new body rhumba.” The song captures the feeling of joy Baumbach clearly has in delivering all these observations about the mundanity of life.
Questions like, "Why is everyone so existential about death if they are wasting their precious time on meaningless lives?" is at the core of this film, and it never really gets answered.
A lot of time in “White Noise” is spent in grocery stores with characters slowly strolling up and down the halls debating which flavor of Pringles or which shaped pasta to buy. Illusion of choice, it’s all processed food that will affect people mostly the same as they all march towards the inevitable end. The grocery store is such a fun place to be because it’s one of the times humans feel like we have some semblance of control.
Life is all chaos, and no one’s energy captures that better than Driver and Gerwig, who deliver some of the best comedic performances of their respective careers. Despite the comedy and glib attitude, White Noise isn’t a one-note film.
There is surprising emotional depth in the way Babette copes with her fear of death. One scene in particular, where she breaks down to Jack the emotional and physical trauma she’s gone through to obtain Dylar, is one of the most affecting scenes in film this year.
A lot of people around the country are going to fire up Netflix on Dec. 30 and be baffled by the obtuse, impossible-to-understand jigsaw puzzle of White Noise. It's not a film for everyone, but if you delight in existential questions and dialogue so nonsensical that the only response is to laugh, then you might just appreciate what Baumbach is trying to grasp.