White Noise is not a film made for Noah Baumbach fans. The director’s first venture into literary adaptation is spread thin, taking time to explore a pseudo-apocalyptic Armageddon, familial tensions, mysterious memory loss, and the bizarre world of academic Hitler studies. It’s simply unlike anything he’s done before, from the minimalist Frances Ha to the more mainstream Marriage Story, and fans of his other works may struggle to identify any trademarks of the director within this film. Equally, it’s reasonable to claim that White Noise was not made for fans of cinema in general, with a ‘Marmite-esque’ division of critical opinion on the horizon, thanks to both the abrupt ending and narrative parkour.
This film was made with really one audience in mind; fans of the source material, Don DeLillo’s acclaimed postmodern novel of the same name. Compared to the novel, Baumbach is extremely faithful; even the three acts of the film are subtitled as they are in the book, dividing the story into manageable chunks where only the largest of subplots seep between sections. Great care has been given to retain the blackly comedic tone of DeLillo’s writing, and whilst there are moments of inconsistency (a particularly harrowing monologue by Greta Gerwig’s Babette comes to mind), Baumbach retains as much as he can without sacrificing the story for the benefit of a more mainstream audience. Presumably that’s one of the benefits of having Netflix as a financial backer.
The performances are equally intense, with Adam Driver’s Jack and Raffey Cassidy’s Denise as standouts. The former dominates the screen with every appearance, effortlessly fluctuating between delusional optimist and protective family man. Despite the central theme of family, it’s really Driver’s film; no stranger to Baumbach, he successfully delivers spot on moments of absurdity that seal the conviction of the plot. Cassidy too is an excellent screen presence, even if her role is effectively restricted to a single plot concerning the wellbeing of Babette; she takes the independent first-born daughter trope to new heights, combating Jack on ground that never feels uneven despite their age.
Unfortunately, if there was any cast member that struggles to meet the heights of their co-stars, it is surprisingly Gerwig, though this is far more to do with how much she has to do than what exactly she does. The nature of the plot demands her mental absence for much of the film, and it’s a shame given her past of strong performances, with the intimate moments feeling increasingly disconnected as the film goes on.
The plot too, suffers occasional moments of inactivity or tonal parkour, but again, Don DeLilo’s ‘unfilmable’ book is a far bigger source of the issues than Baumbach. Act one feels almost aimless, a consequence of DeLilo’s focus on uneventful family satire rather than any plot furthering. It establishes the rest of the film well, but Baumbach is forced to dedicate too much time to it, which becomes apparent by the end when the film twists and turns at a hundred miles per hour. It would have been nice, and perhaps appropriate, to see Baumbach seep more of his dramatic, slice-of-life DNA into the first act, but this is relatively inconsequential. The film still manages to carry and elevate the book with great success, and the hamperings of adapting any book to the screen can be gently brushed aside amidst Baumbach’s achievement.
Going into this film with the expectation of another standard Baumbach triumph will leave you disappointed; instead, take it for what it is, for better or for worse. White Noise is an exemplary take on postmodernism, and a brilliant legacy for DeLilo’s novel.
White Noise will be released in select cinemas on November 25th, followed by a streaming release on December 30th by Netflix.
Edited by Lydia Leung, Film & TV Head Editor