Review: Noah Baumbach Embraces Absurdity, Uncertainty in Weird, Interesting White Noise

Filmmaker Noah Baumbach has made a career out of films that explore the absurdity of humanity, the seemingly arbitrary connections we forge and the ways we exhaust ourselves trying to make any of it mean anything at all. A contemporary of the likes of Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson, his films are often dialog-heavy and populated more by caricatures than characters. For White Noise, an adaptation of Don Delillo's breakthrough 1985 satirical novel, Baumbach gets to go bigger than he's ever gone, with a production that is bolder and more technically involved than anything he's made to date. Starring Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Jodie Turner-Smith and more, the film isn't always easy to follow or, to be honest, all that entertaining. But then again, it's also a strikingly timely commentary on these modern times despite being set in a sort of glossier 1980s-era America, and at its core has something quite meaningful to say about the ways we try to make sense out of absurdity.

Driver stars as Jack Gladney, a college professor who has set himself apart as an expert on something called "Hitler studies," which is either the best or worst possible timing for such an odd profession given the current discourse. He's married to Babette (Gerwig), and together they're raising a his, hers and ours family of four kids: Denise (Raffey Cassidy), Heinrich (Sam Nivola), Steffie (May Nivola) and pre-schooler Wilder. This is a family practically defined by their neuroses, from Jack and Babette's obsession with (and fear of) death to Denise and Heinrich's wise-beyond-their-years wisdom about the world. Scenes with all six of these characters are chaotic and busy, scripted lines tumbling out quickly and overlapping someone else's, or head-scratcher nonsequiturs screeching the entire proceedings to a halt.

DeLillo's book is roughly 320 pages, meaning it's not a tome to adapt but it does center around several different moments/themes in the Gladneys' lives. In a filmed version, which Baumbach adapted himself, that means several threads are constantly having to be woven together, some more successfully than others. At the crux of the film is an Airborne Toxic Event that occurs after a fuel truck collides with a freight train, releasing an unknown toxin into the air and rendering the sky an ominous purple-red, filled with terrifyingly foreboding clouds. The sequence in which the collision takes place is riveting filmmaking, editing together the inevitable crash of these two speeding vehicles and an impassioned lecture from Jack, his students and fellow faculty glued to his every word. The family gets conflicting information about how to respond to the Airborne Toxic Event, first being told to evacuate, then to stay sheltered; eventually, they find themselves at a refugee camp where emergency teams only feed the confusion without any clear sense of how to proceed. The resulting mad dash out of the refugee camp channels some exceptional retro filmmaking (watch for the station wagon to go airborne itself!) and some of the film's best laughs.

But every laugh here comes with an edge, as most of White Noise is meant to make us think and reflect rather than mindlessly tune out for entertainment's sake. A secondary plot arises between Jack and Babette when he finally confronts her about a suspected pill addiction; the truth is much weirder, and the film shifts gears quite dramatically to plunge these two into a sort of confrontation with their own existentialism. Audiences expecting something colorful, light and relatively approachable here will find themselves sorely disappointed, as Baumbach never once lets his film feel "normal." From the performances, rigid and literal in their delivery, to the special effects that channel nostalgia as much as they do science-fiction, the film is an exercise in challenging (and subverting) an audience's expectations.

News broke before the film's release that LCD Soundsystem had reconvened to contribute a new original song to the film's end scene, their first new music in five years. Called "New Body Rhumba," the song does indeed play over the credits, but there's so much more going on, I'm half tempted to spoil it. I'll resist the urge, however, and only say that it's a scene that, perhaps more than the whole film before it, sums up everything White Noise is trying to call us out on. It's as silly as it is profound, as oddly satisfying as it is confounding, and in the end, that might not be the most comfortable place to be, but it sure is interesting.

White Noise is now playing in theaters, including on 35mm film at Music Box Theatre.

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Lisa Trifone