White Noise stumbles around trying to find a point and only occasional trips into okay passages.
Published on January 20, 2023
Rating 2.5 /5
On the surface, White Noise might seem like the most ambitious of films for Noah Baumbach to direct. Based on the novel by Don DeLillo, this a period comedy that oozes the anxious nature of the era with a creeping fear of existentialism. While that might seem like a solid story fit for Baumbach’s odd style of drama and comedy, his film merely meanders around its absurdities that often get lost in the insanity of it all.
Set in 1984, Ohio, the film centers around the husband and father, Jack Gladney (Adam Driver). He’s already an odd man for his career being a professor of Hitler studies at the local college, but he is made even weirder by his family. His wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), is his fourth wife, and she’s addicted to a drug that fights off the fear of death. Their children are all apt enough to question the world more profoundly but become just as easily lost in their thoughts as their dad. Every conversation with Jack feels like a lecture, from dinner table discussions of the environment to intimate bedroom talk where he calmly debates the type of porn to watch with his wife. He lives a crazy life, and it’s about to get more absurd.
After Jack delivers his greatest lecture on the relationship between Hitler and Elvis, a train carrying toxic chemicals crashes far from his house. Jack, far too optimistic about the future, only evacuates his family at the moment when it gets really bad. The family tries to flee to safety as the environment grows toxic with a black cloud that looms over the town. Amid all the chaos, Jack becomes exposed to the chemicals in the air, which has severely reduced his life. Realizing that death may be coming for him sooner rather than later, Jack tries to come to terms with his mortality while also handling the dread that creeps within us all.
Now, there’s undoubtedly a slew of audiences who will mark off this type of story as pretentious. White Noise is not pretentious about what it’s trying to stress about. Mortality is essential to us all, and everybody questions their existence in some way at some point in time. The problem is that this type of picture mostly coasts on its platitudes of oddness to try to find some comfort, placing strange allegory after allegory in this freewheeling comedy. Every moment when it feels like the film is finally touching on something greater worth exploring, we’re once again whisked into another silly situation. For example, Jack’s violent encounter with a drug dealer and cheater weirdly shifts gears to them proceeding to a church for healthcare, stumbling into a conversation about religion. And before that topic gets explored beyond some dry jokes, the picture dips back into the existentialism of family life and the purgatory of the grocery store.
White Noise stumbles around trying to find a point and only occasional trips into okay passages. The quirky humor is serviceable for most of the picture, but it loses its allure quickly. Even the sly pontifications of Don Cheadle as a fellow professor and the sleazy guru excuses delivered by Lars Eidinger become tiresome for their easy-to-read bits on the acceptance of death. Kudos to Noah Baumbach for going out of his comfort to find something more in this messy novel, but as his first film to be based on a book, I vastly prefer his original works.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.