Only now, in this moment in Hollywood, could Don DeLillo’s award-winning novel be adapted white noise By indie darling Noah Baumbach is being funded like a blockbuster. After all, the movie isn’t going to make any real money – even though it’s been playing in a few theaters for over a month, it was widely released yesterday on Netflix. But over the years, the operator has funded many of the risky passion projects of a major filmmaker. Hence the gigantic scope of Baumbach’s vision: DeLillo’s zany satire on ’80s existential boredom has the breadth of a sparkling Spielbergian adventure.
Baumbach has produced two of the best movies of his career for Netflix, and the actors he’s gathered here — including Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, and Don Cheadle — are top-notch. Given all this, plus the fact that its source is a semi-canonical piece of literature, one might surmise white noise For a juggernaut prize, or at least a strong contender. instead of, white noise It debuted at this year’s deluxe film festivals to mostly lukewarm reviews. It hits the Internet kinda quietly, as an end-of-the-year freak rather than an instant greatest opus.
white noise It is undoubtedly a carefully crafted film that bravely attempts to flesh out the unsettling spirit of DeLillo’s work, which many have deemed “unadaptable” over the years. I think that naming is a little overblown, and Baumbach seems to do too, as he imposed a fairly crisp 3D structure and gave the film a Danny Elfman high score that transcends the eerie homage to the greatness of Aaron Copland. This adaptation takes the story of an ’80s family dealing with the aftermath of a local chemical accident and gives it the feel of a classic Amblin movie. Of course, this dissonance is part of the novel’s parody as well, and perhaps the reason white noise It seems very confusing – though not unrewarding – to watch.
DeLillo’s story gauges the hyper-capitalism of America in the mid-1980s. It deconstructs the rural lives of successful academic Jack Gladney (played by Chauffeur in the film) and his wife, Babette (Gerwig). Unable to enjoy the splendor of the suburbs around them, they focus on their fears of death and their vain attempts at self-improvement. Baumbach does his best to instill horror in his film, but for the viewer, existential horror can easily be confused with a lack of energy.
Still, white noiseThe first act is full of the kind of rapid, overlapping dialogue in which Baumbach excels. Jack fends off the cynical kids in his blended family, works on learning German to legitimize his position as a “Hitler Studies” professor, and assists fellow academic Murray Siskind (Cheadle), who is trying to create a similar department focused on Elvis Presley. In one virtuoso sequence, Jack and Murray give simultaneous lectures by Hitler and Elvis to the same audience, trading back and forth on two very different cults of the 20th century. Baumbach’s visual fluidity, his camera’s playful dance around the lecture hall, is a joy to behold, given that he tends to work on a smaller scale.
This sequence is intercut with a train accident that releases a deadly cloud of chemicals into the atmosphere – the catastrophic “airborne toxic event” that makes Jack and Babette’s fears of death suddenly seem more urgent. Here, the film comes alive beyond its satire of knowledge; Baumbach wisely makes the ensuing horror a nearly hour-long spectacle – by far his finest ride yet. The Gladny family watches the news with growing alarm, eventually hitting the road with everyone else in town. After getting stuck in a miserably long traffic jam, they proceed to the quarantine center, where every directive from the government is as baffling as it is hopelessly mismanaged. It’s surprisingly funny and disturbing stuff.
The movie also manages to feel modern without giving away its throwback aesthetic. Baumbach knows he’s making this movie for an audience that experienced a toxic mid-air event, and brings out a few terrifying details that seem uncomfortable. Jack’s initial efforts to downplay the disaster, to reassure his children and reassure himself, are heartbreaking. Although much of the ensuing drama pokes fun at Jack’s silly efforts to be the protective alpha male of the family, Driver is great at conveying the joke without completely losing his personality.
white noiseThe final chapter, in which the Gladneys try to return to their normal lives, is the most difficult knot to untangle. For its difficult conclusion, the book deliberately goes inland, delving deeper into Jack and Babette’s anxieties. Still, Baumbach can’t switch from the film’s exaggerated tone to something more personal. The final confrontation is emotional but still heart-wrenching, which is probably why the movie should be remembered simply as a curiosity – a brilliant adaptation that can’t overcome the biting irony built into its source material. In this potentially dwindling age of prestige projects guaranteed by Netflix, I certainly understand why Baumbach jumped at the challenge of making white noise. Unfortunately, a graceful ending eluded him.
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