Going back to work after the long festive break sucks. Suddenly there is no longer a refrigerator full of cheese just yards away, and it is not really acceptable to start drinking at lunchtime anymore. In these dark times, one thing is guaranteed to perk us right up – an Outposter contribution! You know how we love it when one of you wants to say something about movies, streaming, TV or entertainment in general. Today is the turn of Mr. Horta, who has been watching White Noise so I didn’t have to.
If there is something you want to tell you fellow Outposters about, e-mail us at [email protected] and prepare to see your name in lights and be critiqued by your peers via Disqus.
If the question is “Should I watch White Noise?” – that’s you doing the asking, by the way, in sardonic voiceover – the answer, probably and regrettably, leans toward “No” for the reasons I’ll detail below.
But if you have Netflix, is it a movie you should pull up and play? Absolutely!
This is the kind of weird, swing-for-the-fences, budgeted-at-$100 million comic adult fare we need more of. There’s nothing to fear with this approach, no looming “White Noise Cinematic Universe” that threatens a sequel where Hitler professor Jack Gladney battles his nemesis, The Whale.
If you liked Under the Silver Lake, Donnie Darko or maybe even The Witches of Eastwick, then White Noise may be up your alley. It’s kind of the anti-Stranger Things, in a way – period-setting fidelity but hold the “stranger.” (Wes Anderson’s Stranger Things?) Alongside its considerable charms and quality filmmaking, it’s also tedious at times, overlong and anticlimactic. But hey, those don’t necessarily have to be dealbreakers!
By now you have an idea of the plot, I imagine. We start with vignettes introducing renowned Midwestern Hitler Studies professor Jack Gladney, his wife Babette and their four children from various marriages. The discovery that Babette is sneaking a top-secret experimental medication is exposed early on as a thread we’ll come back to. Babette has an intense fear of death, which Jack will soon find he possesses too when a toxic cloud arrives overhead in a great sequence that intercuts a giant chemical train/semi crash with Gladney’s orgasmic lecture about why so many Germans loved Hitler.
As the danger from the toxic cloud recedes, the Gladney’s fear of death only rises. What’s this strange drug and who’s supplying it? Jack is pushed to find out. He gets a gun along the way.
So far, so good; certainly a departure from director Noah Baumbach’s more restrained previous work. For me, three key things stand out:
1. I love White Noise the novel. As a naïve college freshman I was amazed that such a weird, sharply funny, relatively short and (importantly) non-sentimentally-clichéd book (i.e., no late tragic deaths, pathos from illness or disability, etc.) would be in the literary section of the bookstore and not some lesser section. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is weird and funny but firmly sci-fi; curiously enough, the movie version of White Noise shares some of that adaptation’s problems. White Noise the book is full of funny one-liners, truisms and sharp observations, the voice is wryly outstanding, and the plot has a good three-act shape. You might feel more in tune with the world after reading it.
Don DeLillo, by the way, is a national treasure, even if his best work is probably behind him. Check out Underworld for a panoramic Cold War epic through the eyes of a huge cast of characters, Great Jones Street for the ultimate ’70s burnout reclusive rock star story, and Running Dog for its airport-thriller compactness about people searching for a missing film of an orgy from Hitler’s bunker – that guy again! If you can get into DeLillo, there’s a lot to like, most of it from before 2000.
2. White Noise the movie nails the cinematic look of 1985; the film has a beautiful texture, the camera moves elegantly, and it’s chock full of reverence, like a nice shot that mimics the last one from Back to the Future. White Noise may be worth seeing for the aesthetics alone. Great performance also from Adam Driver as a frumpy professor in over his head. As Babette, Greta Gerwig – emphasis on “wig” – comes across as appropriately drugged. There are a fair amount of chuckles and some laugh-out-loud moments, such as a scene after the disaster where Jack realizes the emergency coordinators are using the actual event as helpful data for a future simulation of the event is terrific.
3. The voice of the book translated to film, when its truisms/observations have to be carried by dialogue between characters, is its fundamental flaw. Not enough real conversations in the movie, in other words, which is maddening… but those that are real work well.
The movie could stand to lose at least 20 minutes. If it had come out in the ’80s and not been connected to a novel, it would’ve been a sleek 116 minutes but it’s indebted enough to the novel that I imagine it seemed impossible. The ending, as mentioned, is a bit anticlimactic, but to be fair so is the book’s ending, if to a lesser extent.
White Noise may well be the kind of movie you get more out of the more you watch it. Just now, typing up this review, I realize its Wizard of Oz references, from the weather-disaster catalyst to the reveal of the Man Behind the Curtain. You just wish it added up to more on a first viewing.
Before watching it, I wondered if Baumbach should’ve directed The Fabelmans, counter-intuitive as that may seem, while Spielberg took on White Noise, complete with its train-crash disaster of the kind he apparently had such a formative experience with. Huge credit to Baumbach for growing as a filmmaker with this one, a stylized auteur’s work of the kind we need more of.
I can’t in good faith recommend White Noise, a movie full of promise that’s less than the sum of its parts. I can fully recommend you put it on, however, and let it start. Who knows? Maybe you’ll decide to watch. I’d like to think Don DeLillo would appreciate that gesture as one with just a hint of appropriate irony.