“May the days be endless, let the seasons drift; do not advance the action according to a plan” – words spoken by Adam Driver’s Jack Gladney in the cinematic adaptation of Don DeLillo’s famously unwieldy novel White Noise, but they also summarize Noah Baumbach’s approach in bringing to life a book no one thought could be translated to the big screen. The end result is meandering – aimless, even – but it represents Baumbach at his most creatively ambitious. With White Noise, he is given the opportunity to expand the scope of his filmmaking from the intimate, character-driven dramas he’s best known for to experimenting with different genres on a much larger scale. At its worst, White Noise is a hodge podge of ideas more than a coherent storyline, but at its best, it’s some of Baumbach’s most interesting and exciting work in years.
There is a family at the center of White Noise – they start talking at the beginning of the film and basically don’t shut up until the credits roll. Adam Driver is Jack Gladney, the family patriarch and accomplished Hitler Studies professor at the local university. His wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) keeps the household running, even as she experiences unexplained laps in memory that have her eldest daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) suspicious. There are also Jack’s children from a previous marriage, Heinrich and Steffie (played by Sam and May Nivola, who are real-life siblings, the children of actors Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer), and their shared son Wilder. The blended family is a whirling dervish of thoughts, questions, and arguments, creating an elegantly staged dance as they carry out everyday household tasks.
There’s plenty that happens to them throughout the film, but the family is important, and their connection to one another is crucial. The constant buzz of activity between the siblings and their parents is what gives the film its life force, the titular white noise that distracts all from their inevitable march towards oblivion. Death takes up an enormous amount of space in White Noise, and the more they try to ignore it, the larger a shadow it casts over them all. Jack and Babette have a seemingly playful pillow talk argument early in the film about what order they’ll die in because neither can fathom the idea of outliving the other and being left alone.
Jack intellectualizes his fears while Babette looks at her young son, wishing he could stay a small child forever, dreading the passage of time that will first take him from her as he gains independence and ultimately take her from him. But despite their protestations, time moves inexorably forward, rushing by even as the characters seem to be stationary – stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic while attempting to flee an airborne toxic event, for example – or engaging in comfortable every ritual, such as their routine trips to the supermarket.
There are certainly audience members who will find White Noise impenetrable – its narrative is meandering (when it follows a coherent plot at all) and exists in a heightened reality where upper-middle-class suburbia seems to glitch, for lack of a better word, every once in a while. But while its themes are occasionally dense and it often eschews traditional narrative devices altogether, White Noise rewards the viewer who is willing to simply go along for the ride. Although the novel was long considered patently unfilmable, Baumbach seemingly finds a sense of liberation in its lack of structure. It brings a broader scope to his traditionally intimate storytelling style. There are moments that feel almost Spielbergian in tone, others that are purposefully surreal and even abstract.
Aside from Baumbach’s surprisingly playful direction, the biggest draw of White Noise is its ensemble cast. Adam Driver is the axis around which the entire film revolves, equal parts grandiose and absurd. Greta Gerwig’s role is quieter, but she quickly establishes herself as the emotional heart of White Noise, reminding audiences that although she’s now an accomplished director in her own right, she’s still a talented actress when the occasion arises. The family unit operates like a well-oiled machine, with each of the children bringing a precociousness that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Wes Anderson film. The ensemble is rounded out with small but meaningful performances from actors clearly relishing the opportunity to have a little bit of fun, including Don Cheadle as one of Jack’s university colleagues, a professor determined to make a name for himself in the study of Elvis.
Bright and vibrant, dense and philosophical, White Noise defies easy categorization. It flits around from topic to topic, plot point to plot point, as the characters struggle frantically to avoid the thing that they’re all careening towards. It may not be entirely coherent, but it doesn’t need to be – it more than makes up for its lack of narrative thrust by being one of the more original cinematic events we’ve seen in quite some time. There’s just nothing else like it, and these days, that has to be worth something.