Historically, Noah Baumbach has been a somewhat intimate filmmaker. Especially prior to his partnership with Netflix, Baumbach was making modest independent films, which focused heavily on characters. Since teaming up with the streamer, he’s continued that, with a similar scale to the movies as well. With White Noise, however, he’s been given the opportunity to go bigger. So, opening the 60th New York Film Festival is as close as we’ll likely ever get to a Baumbach epic. At the same time, the neurosis and themes that he gives his characters to tackle is still very much in evidence. So, while this won’t be everyone’s jam, White Noise has a fun trippy quality to it that worked on me. NYFF has a fun weird one on their hands here.
White Noise is the sort of big lark we rarely see anymore. Big themes and heady ideas mix with action set-pieces and some big comedy as well. Truly, this flick moves between genres with ease, even including an original song by LCD Soundsystem set to a dance sequence as the climax. You really don’t see that everyday, now do you?
An adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel of the same name, there’s a lot going on here, while also having a fairly wandering plot, so I’ll just give some of the bullet points. Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is a noted professor of Hitler Studies, lecturing to an often enraptured crowd. His friend and colleague Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) teaches a class on car crashes in American Cinema and is planning to teach Elvis Studies, hoping Jack can stop in and help out. At home, Jack’s latest wife Babbette (Greta Gerwig) dotes on him and their blended family, consisting of children Denise (Raffey Cassidy), Heinrich (Sam Nivola), and Steffie (May Nivola) from prior marriages, as well as their young kid, Wilder. Life seems largely great, though something is about to change all of that.
At the same time as Denise becomes curious about a mysterious pill Babbette is taking, an airborne toxic event occurs and spurs the Gladney clan to evacuate their home. On the road and attempting to escape the toxic cloud, the normal insecurities of the day give way to actual life and death concerns. That’s just the midway point, too, as the end result of these two plot threads will make Jack and Babette tackle mortality in a far more direct manner, with unusual results.
Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig are Baumbach veterans and give two more great performances for the director. Driver does neuroses quite well, while Gerwig’s descent at the hands of the drug is immensely compelling. Don Cheadle makes his lecture monologues incredibly memorable, while Rafey Cassidy is the highlight of the solid child actors. Everyone has solid chemistry, really embracing Baumbach’s vision. The rest of the cast includes André 3000, Lars Eidinger, Gideon Glick, Jodie Turner-Smith, and more.
Filmmaker Noah Baumbach has taken DeLillo’s supposedly un-adaptable novel and adapted it in such a way that you can clearly see its appeal to him. His direction is colorful and vivid, utilizing the 80s timeline and garish colors of the day to its full extent. Cinematographer Lol Crawley captures the hypnotic nature of the A&P, of all things. Baumbach also employs a score by Danny Elfman that heightens everything in White Noise. Script-wise, Baumbach has elements that work better than others. The third act in particular is a bit rough around the edges, but that might be the book’s hard to handle nature popping up.
White Noise opens the 2022 incarnation of the New York Film Festival with a favorite son working in a different register than usual. NYFF 60 is full of interesting titles, but it certainly has started with a bang. Noah Baumbach’s biggest and trippiest work yet tackles heady themes while still remembering to have some fun. Once you get on its fairly particular wavelength, what you find is pretty compelling.