[White Noise made its North American premiere at the 60th New York Film Festival.]
What if Family Ties had an apocalyptic episode?
The ’80s and ’90s family sitcoms lived and breathed on “very special” episodes. However, an apocalypse might’ve been too much for the stewards of Alex P. Keaton or even Married…with Children’s Al Bundy. It makes for a fun thought experiment, though. Luckily, we have Noah Baumbach to bring the tantalizing possibilities to life.
White Noise is Baumbach’s first feature adaptation, pulling from the novel of the same name by Don DeLillo. The film follows Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a college professor of “Hitler Studies,” his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their kooky blended suburban family. Their lives devolve into chaos when a nearby train accident causes a climate catastrophe known as the “Airborne Toxic Event.” Confusion and misinformation about this cataclysm surround the Gladney clan, exposing their deep-seated fears about their mortality and what they’ll leave behind.
Anyone remotely familiar with Baumbach’s work will likely be stunned by White Noise. The Oscar-nominated Marriage Story, his most recent film, was an emotional maelstrom, tracking the breakdown of a marriage. White Noise is a maelstrom of another kind. Baumbach fully embraces his adapted story’s utter madness. He crams his script with eye-popping satire, his actors delivering lines at a rapid-fire, overwhelming clip. It is enthralling to listen to and equally so to watch. Leaning well into the film’s title, Baumbach captures the groundswell of chaos with a creative and engaging eye. He keeps us constantly plugged into the neverending insanity surrounding the Gladneys. You can forgive your eye for focusing on cars smashing into people or panicked townsfolk tripping over each other. The mess could’ve been distracting, but Baumbach crafts an engrossing portrait of suburbia gone awry.
White Noise is Baumbach’s most ambitious project to date, which means he strives for more than a high-octane riff on Midwestern families. The film is effectively three films in one (with title cards, of course), with some narrative carryover between them. The first act deals with Jack’s self-mythologizing as a famous professor of a bizarre subject. Baumbach, Adam Driver, and Don Cheadle (playing fellow professor Murray Siskind) mine some eyebrow-raising comedy out of it, but it is the strangest and most challenging section to parse. The second act largely ignores the first, shifting into the silliness of the town’s reaction to the event. It weaves ‘80s-era Spielberg aesthetics around a remix of his character-driven narrative voice. Separate from the rest, White Noise’s second section is a solid contender for being one of the year’s funniest, best films.
The final section is more dramatic as it deals with Babette’s not-so-secret reliance on unknown pills. We learn about her feelings of ennui, disconnection, and fear of death. We also learn how far she will go to address her problem. The scene where Babette confesses all to Jack is powerful and beautifully acted by Driver and Greta Gerwig. However, Baumbach’s lingering comic energy slightly undercuts its dramatic heft, especially given its implications. The film leans back onto its absurdist pillars and mostly gets away with it. (The film’s end credits, an interpretative dance set in the town’s supermarket, help greatly in that way.) Ironically, the third act’s stabs at narrative cohesion make the film work, even if its bizarreness favors the first more than the second.
With Baumbach throwing so much at them, the cast of White Noise does a great job keeping up the pace and commitment. It’s lovely seeing Adam Driver in comedic, off-beat fare after a string of dramatic heavy-hitters (and Star Wars.) He is very entertaining playing Jack’s desperate denialism and yearning for family peace amidst the craziness his family and the community push onto him. His best moment comes in the first act, where he goes full-on H.R. Pickens during his lecture, just as unhinged but even more captivating. Gerwig perfectly captures traditional sitcom moms’ outwardly calm, inwardly frantic energy while naturally layering in bits of melancholy that deepen her arc’s power. Cheadle is hilarious, landing some of the film’s biggest laughs with an infectious happy-go-lucky charm. I wished we had more time with his character.
It turns out an apocalyptic episode of Family Ties would’ve been darn great, at least conceived by Noah Baumbach. White Noise reinforces his strengths as an actor’s director with rich scripting and expands his horizons into new genres and stories. The result is undoubtedly strange but undeniably captivating. It only makes you wonder what he’ll tackle next (perhaps L.A. Law set during the Crusades).