When books are written about Netflix’s grand investment in prestige cinema, Noah Baumbach’s White Noise may go down as the movie that finally killed the goose that laid the golden budgets. This is not to say the streaming service will never again fund an auteur’s vanity project — it still hasn’t snagged that Best Picture Oscar, and, spoilers, this film won’t be the one to win it — but it’s unlikely to do it on this scale again. The Irishman was more expensive, Blonde was more of a disaster, but for sheer hubris, you can’t beat an apocalyptic period adaptation of a supposedly unfilmable literary classic, by a director better known for caustic domestic comedies, with a rumored budget of $140 million. We certainly won’t see the like again — not from Netflix, at any rate.
You may as well go out with a bang. Adapted from the beloved 1985 Don DeLillo novel, White Noise is a baffling, uneven, sporadically enthralling movie about the collective psychosis of 1980s America and a dry run for the end of the world. It is basically three movies in one: a mannered satire of academia, consumerism, and the modern family is followed by a paranoid, Spielbergian disaster epic. The final third twists itself up into a queasy, surreal noir reminiscent of the Coen brothers at their most inscrutable. If you had to guess which one of these Baumbach handles most successfully, based on his previous work, you would almost certainly get it wrong.
Baumbach’s love for the source novel is obvious. This is a faithful, if surprisingly cheery and antic, adaptation. It misses only a handful of the novel’s beats, while the screenplay, which Baumbach wrote himself, reverently lifts great chunks of DeLillo’s dialogue and prose. But, fan credentials notwithstanding, the director is an odd fit for the book. Baumbach specializes in interpersonal dramedies, like Frances Ha or Marriage Story, written, performed, and shot in a naturalistic style. DeLillo’s book, however, is arch, stylized, and metaphorical, full of big ideas, big events, and solipsistic characters talking over and through each other.
The story centers on Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a professor at a pleasantly anonymous heartland university who has pioneered the provocative field of “Hitler studies.” At work, Jack covers up for his lack of actual scholarship (he can’t speak German) and engages in spiraling intellectual discourse with his friend Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), who is thinking of diversifying from car crashes into Elvis Presley. At home, Jack good-humoredly manages a bustling, argumentative blended family with his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig). The besotted pair compete over which of them is more anxious about dying, but something seems genuinely wrong with Babette, and an ominous cloud is gathering on the horizon — literally. An accident unleashes a poisonous cloud known as the Airborne Toxic Event, and the Gladneys are caught up in a wave of panic.
Everything about this material, except its middle-class intellectual milieu, pushes Baumbach far out of his comfort zone. (It’s also the first period piece he has attempted, and the heightened, day-glo interpretation of the 1980s in the costuming and production design is one of White Noise’s principal pleasures.) He rises to the challenge in unexpected ways. This is his most visually dense and imaginative film by a long chalk, and he deftly constructs a series of stunning set-pieces: an opening lecture by Don Cheadle’s character, Murray, intercut with archive car-crash footage; an academic duel between Jack and Murray, prowling and pontificating around a lecture theater as they weave the legends of Hitler and Elvis together; Jack’s genuinely spooky night terrors; and a theatrical confrontation between Jack and Babette, late in the movie, as he gets her to finally open up and confess what is wrong. The latter is exquisitely blocked and beautifully performed, by an anguished Gerwig in particular.
Although the showy, CGI train crash that precipitates the Airborne Toxic Event doesn’t really work — it bluntly literalizes a disaster that, in the book, is all the more ominous for being distant and vague — what follows is an extraordinary, sustained sequence that echoes Spielberg’s masterpiece of collective madness, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It turns out that, as a thriller director working on a grand scale, Baumbach has the goods. The scenes of gridlock and automotive carnage under boiling skies have a dreadful charge, while a stop at a deserted gas station has something of the exposed terror of Hitchcock’s The Birds. Later, Baumbach shows he can mix action with comedy in a farcical station-wagon car chase that could easily hail from a Chevy Chase movie from the period in which White Noise is set. Sometimes, Baumbach seems more instinctively aligned with the pop culture DeLillo was critiquing than with DeLillo himself.
Oddly for Baumbach, who is usually very generous with his actors, the cast flounders, adrift in the surreal grandiosity of the director’s design and struggling to find the rhythm in his collage of lines from the book. Cheadle, tweedy and quizzical, fares the best in this strange world, delivering statements like, “She has important hair.” Driver has some great moments and characterful bits of business — witness the way he shoves his hand up through his academic gown to push Jack’s tinted glasses up that magnificent nose, with a private smirk — but he’s sadly miscast. At 39, he’s at least a decade too young for Jack, and even the pot belly and patina of seedy middle age given to him by the makeup and costume departments can’t hide his essential virility. You just can’t buy Driver as a thwarted academic; his body doesn’t know what thwarted means. He’s very funny, though. Driver’s intensity often leads his comic skills to be overlooked, so it’s a pleasure to find as unlikely a film as White Noise bringing them to the fore.
The thing that most annoys DeLillo purists about Baumbach’s film might be the thing that makes it most pleasurable to watch for everyone else: It’s fun. It’s a messy movie that can’t quite find the thread to make sense of DeLillo’s vision or the reality of his characters — particularly during its bewildering final third, after the Airborne Toxic Event dissipates and Jack becomes obsessed with Babette’s place in a kind of pharmaceutical conspiracy. But it has been made with wit and an infectious relish. Baumbach lunges for laughs and scares, often successfully, and splashes the screen with bright color and movement. Under the end credits, he stages a dance number in the aisles of the supermarket that DeLillo and his pretentious characters imagine as the modern American church. Is Baumbach still making a point, or just cutting loose? The latter, I suspect, and more power to him. He took Netflix’s money and ran.
White Noise is out now on Netflix.