Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
Mortality, marriage and middle-class America gets a muddled inspection under a cloud of toxic vapors in Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, a cynical and nihilistic comedy about a couple’s confrontation with their inevitable end and the feelings it inspires about their life.
Jack (Adam Driver) and Babette (Greta Gerwig) live in an Ohio town, raising four kids between them born from their combined eight marriages, present one included, and their house is stuffed with debris from a shared life of accumulation. The bustle of their family is like a whirlwind moving through it, with sons, daughters, children and teens, talking at, with, or over each other, and Jack struggles through the crossfire, answering a question here, giving comment there: It’s exhausting.
The first quiet moment comes in the marital bed. Jack and Babette discuss the matter of who dies first, and for whom the other’s passing would be more devastating. One’s abyss is the other’s chasm, which is then the other’s void. The hypothetical becomes reality, as a toxic cloud appears on the edge of town, threatening everything within it, and sending everyone on the run in mortal fear. Backed up highways, panicked traffic accidents, makeshift emergency camps follow, and the aftermath of the “event” only aggravates Jack and Babette’s fears, both now convinced the end is closer, and somehow more inevitable, than ever.
White Noise is dense with the surreal, the absurd, the painfully mundane and everything in between. Adapting Don DeLillo’s source novel is a daunting undertaking to begin with, as DeLillo’s writing is already busier than most, and Baumbach strains to include both texture, exchanges and greater ideas. Yet in trying to do so, the onslaught is incessant, and you’re left trying hard to find the signal to noise ratio, and filter the static from the salient points in a movie that’s about the great common denominator of life, but beleaguered by near-infinite trivialities.
Gerwig and Driver are the pillars that bridge White Noise, but Baumbach spends more time on building Jack, leaving Babette’s character with little footing and Gerwig forced to spend most of the film as an aloof and pensive cypher while Jack tries to suss out the source of her funk.
The funk of White Noise as a whole is keen satire, only it doesn’t go far beyond it during its runtime, instead double-dipping into its dark comedy, absurd scenarios and riding high on the fortuitous timing of COVID-19 fears that remain within reach of our ADHD-riddled memories. Death comes for us all, and fears of death as well to some extent, but the virus that put the world on its ass represented a novel rendition of mortality that we couldn’t cope with, as this new-fangled specter meant a lived experience that was beyond what our imaginations had prepared us for until this point.
White Noise feels apt in that exploration, as Jack and Babette suddenly have a more tangible fear to dress the scarecrow of their nebulous existential fears, and anyone who has felt similar would do well to join a middle-aged married couple on the journey to possible acceptance. Anyone with less patience for middle class dread and the materialistic trappings they surround themselves with in lieu of spiritual satisfaction will get less mileage.
White Noise has flair, style, and vision, but it also drags, with the wacky encounters, exchanges and passages not always engaging enough to keep you paying attention. As you forge ahead with Jack and Babette, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of things, and at the destination there’s a cynical conclusion that’s not wholly original.
Which leaves you wondering if our cultural commentary hasn’t progressed all that much since the mid-80s when White Noise was published to acclaim. If the message doesn’t feel outdated, but the meaning we take from it remains largely the same blunt condemnation, is that an indictment of the movie, or of cultural stasis on our part?