I suppose you can call it an ambitious undertaking for writer / director Noah Baumbach to make a movie out of a novel that so many have deemed “unfilmable,” but there’s something about “White Noise,” his screen adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 literary award-winner, that feels choppy and empty. This apocalyptic black comedy tackles the absurdity and horror that permeates present day America, but just because a story is timely doesn’t mean it succeeds.
Professor of Hitler studies Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) has a lot going on in his life. He’s a father to four children from a variety of previous marriages, and his current wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) is a pill-popping neurotic who teaches posture classes to senior citizens. There’s a lot of anxiety in their household, most of it related to a serious fear of dying. Their daily routine is shocked to the core when a train carrying a load of chemical waste derails, causing their town to experience an “airborne toxic event.” This causes a chain of events that sends everyone and everything spiraling out of control and into a world of chaos.
It’s an apocalyptic story that’s absurd and alarming, set within the day-to-day confines of a family’s (mostly) humdrum life. The themes are philosophical even when played for laughs, especially during the conversations between Jack and his peer Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) as they banter about death and how it’s all become part of society’s entertainment and culture. There are cerebral observations about unchecked consumerism, religion, rampant self-medicating, conspiracy theories, the rise in environmental disasters caused by humans, and the basic nature of people to avoid facing their own mortality, even if it means ignoring a world that’s collapsing around them.
The story is part sci-fi disaster movie, part black comedy, and part family drama, and the narrative is uneven and doesn’t flow with a natural rhythm. This unsteady footing is coupled with Baumbach’s signature (and often off-putting) witty intellectualism and patronizing dialogue, resulting in a project that comes across as being even more self-absorbed than usual. The writing feels elitist to a fault, though rabid fans of the director’s other work will be in ecstasy.
The best thing (and perhaps the only good thing) about the movie is Driver, who delivers a different type of performance. He’s a standout in a sea of talent, including terrific supporting turns from the ensemble. It’s unfair to ask the actors to carry an entire film, and they are not the problem here.
So much of “White Noise” feels like it’s supposed to be funny, but the overly wry and cynical writing doesn’t translate into laughs. It starts out mildly amusing for the first half hour, then it takes a turn for the weird and is a burden to sit through.