While I haven’t read Don DeLillo’s much-lauded novel, I can’t help but agree with a lot of the claims of it being “unadaptable”. DeLillo’s novel is notorious for its postmodern deconstruction of a particularly modern malaise but so much of what I’m assuming is supposed to be narrative drenched in dense, subversive irony, instead possesses all the biting social critique of a butter knife. Though, notably, genre-filmmaking is something newer to the director, having previously emphasised naturalistic comedy and observational drama and then finding greater commercial success later on with 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories and 2019’s Marriage Story. White Noise retains elements of the family dynamics and dialogue-driven comedy but eschews exploration of interpersonal relationships for hyper-Americanised iconoclasm. Admirable as Baumbach’s intentions are here, his reach far exceeds his grasp, and the intended cacophony becomes hard to entangle from the film’s more glaring structural issues.
Wasting no time in acclimatising audiences to DeLillo’s bizarre microcosm, the film opens with Professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) at the aptly titled College-on-the-Hill, lecturing a sea of enraptured students on the cultural significance of the American car crash. As he elaborates on this quintessential representation of rebirth and destruction in the modern era, he engenders a sense of bewilderment and excitement in his young impressionable audience.
Similarly, across campus, Adam Driver’s Jack Gladney is commanding a lecture in his revered position as professor of Hitler studies, an enterprise which is quickly adjourned as the two professors later find themselves intertwined in what can only be described as a sort of academic rap battle, where each weave tenuous links between the personal lives of Hitler and Elvis, an incident drenched in so much postmodern farce it’s hard to do anything but laugh. It’s in these moments where Baumbach channels the satire and humour most effectively, where the bombastic and nonsensical collide so completely that all you can do is watch on in disbelief.
It’s when the film deviates from this approach that it begins to falter. Broken into three chapters: ‘Waves and Radiation’, ‘The Airborne Toxic Event’ and ‘Dylarama’, each engage with different aspects of the western zeitgeist with varying levels of success but all the same degree of removal from reality. Baumbach maintains some level of grasp of chapter one’s interest in academia, and the second’s juxtaposition of existential angst and self-exceptionalism, but just as the tanker carrying the substance responsible for chapter two’s ecological disaster crashes, so too does the film’s sense of rhythm as it enters its third and final chapter. The chapters resemble a basic three-act structure, but the film’s own strange narrative sense effectively splits the film in two, with chapter 3: ‘Dylarama’ becoming so tonally and even stylistically divorced from the comparatively light-hearted adventure of 1 and 2 that it feels like a different film entirely.
The levity and tongue-in-cheek tone of the film’s earlier moments is traded in for an emotionally weighty turn to big pharma conspiracy theories and stranger yet, a neo-noir in its final moments, causing the film’s internal logic to crumble as the apparent lack of foundation with which to ground any of its characters emotionally is laid bare. Much of the surface-level dress-up is fun to watch ensue, but there’s scant breathing room for any of the film’s characters to make any sort of emotional dent in its rigid canvas. It’s difficult to watch Driver as he struggles to cohere DeLillo’s nigh-impenetrable late-stage capitalism caricature with Baumbach’s more grounded sensibilities.
It seems sensible now that Baumbach opted to retain the novel’s original 1980s modern-day setting. Mentions of “quarantining” are luckily as far as the film’s likeness to the Covid-19 pandemic become; fixing its setting in the past reflects that burgeoning consumerism while extending its criticism beyond that through the cultural signifiers it shares across time.
What’s so frustrating about White Noise is that it clearly possesses the ingredients for something great, but is never able to compound them into anything coherent. Its thematic and narrative content stand separate from one another, as solitary elements, unable to surmount the figurative white noise that plagues the film’s internal mechanisms.
Daniel Strathdee [he/him] @daniel_strathdee