Writer-director Noah Baumbach excels at domestic dramas set in a milieu of neurotic artistic intellectuals, working with actors to draw pitch-perfect performances that carry both dramatic and comedic undertones. His two most recent films were about families in disarray. In The Meyerowitz Stories, an artistic family realizes the ways they have psychologically abused each other. Marriage Story was more literal than that; it’s about how a divorce gets real ugly real quick despite starting in a place of love. He previously mined the disintegration of a nuclear family by divorce in The Squid And The Whale, his first major critical and awards success.
Baumbach takes a major swerve with his latest, White Noise. First, it’s not an original screenplay but rather it’s based on Don DeLillo’s seminal 1985 novel, which was considered unfilmable for many years despite its popularity and acclaim. The film is also different in many other ways. Its ambitions are grander and its themes cover a wider perspective, grappling with a few big social issues in America. Baumbach as director also goes bigger. With apparently his biggest budget to date, he stages a few complex set pieces and directs on a larger canvas than he has before.
Adam Driver plays Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies in an unnamed Midwestern college. He shares a blended family with his wife Babbette (Gerta Gerwig), some of the kids hers, some his. This creates a charged dynamic within the family that makes their interrelationships fun to decipher. The college setting allows for a few familiar faces—Don Cheadle, Jodie Turner-Smith, and André Benjamin among them—to appear as Gladney’s fellow professors. Everyone’s lives are turned upside down when a chemical spill—what is termed an “airborne toxic event”—forces them to flee their small town. The Gladneys fall into an existential crisis exasperated by the real danger that’s all around them.
Ironically, despite trying to go a different way with White Noise, what works best are the elements where Baumbach has previously proven himself. His perceptive work with the actors wrings pathos from within a fractured family, the kind of material Driver and Gerwig excel at by now. This is Driver’s fifth collaboration with Baumbach and Gerwig’s third (though it’s worth noting she’s his life partner offscreen). Familiarity in both cases leads to stellar work, both together and separately. Both look different here too, with girth added to Driver’s midsection and Gerwig given ludicrously big hair. Driver adapts to the film’s heightened style and gives a performance of deft intelligence and physical gestures. At first Gerwig looks to be giving a familiar performance with the same easy charm and comedic physicality as her Frances Ha tour de force. Yet once Babbette’s turmoil and insecurities are revealed, Gerwig’s performance comes through as dexterous, full of both heart and laughs. Babette’s confession of a marital indiscretion is a particular triumph.
May Nivola, Sam Nivola, and especially Raffey Cassidy as the three older Gladney kids are also adeptly attuned to the film’s unnatural rhythms. Playing against Driver and Gerwig, they make the many family discussion scenes flow easily, giving the film its best moments. However, as the heightened stylized dialogue starts to lose its spiciness, they can only take it so far. The film’s themes exist as just discussion points, never resonating in real, tangible ways. The characters speak incessantly about being afraid of death yet the danger remains purely academic, never once coming through as something that might befall one of them. The toxic event and the chaos of misinformation everyone’s plunged into jolts the film along for a bit, if only because we are all still reeling from a similar situation in our ongoing pandemic. More successful is this story taking on the pitfalls of American consumerism, if only because it leads to one of the most exuberant sequences in any movie this year. You haven’t lived until you see the whole cast—but particularly Benjamin—shimmy down to LCD Soundsystem’s “New Body Rhumba,” a song written specifically for the movie.
It’s always admirable when a filmmaker makes a bolder choice and expands their horizon. For Baumbach, such a venture leads to a familiar place; the nuances of family strife remain his artistic sweet spot. Marrying his vision with DeLillo’s proves an uneasy alliance. Unlike the Gladneys who remain together, Baumbach and DeLillo should follow in the footsteps of the couple in Marriage Story: The love might still be there, but the union is bad for both of them.