‘White Noise’ Adapts a Dark American Classic Into an Admirably Chaotic Satire

When adapting a renowned book, the great question is how to retain its essence but still find the movie hiding in its pages. In making “White Noise,” director Noah Baumbach is so committed to staying faithful to the text of Don DeLillo’s most acclaimed work, which won the 1985 National Book Award, that the result is an admirable experiment, even if it’s not fully successful as a movie. Here Baumbach expands his visual palette, plays with dark comedy and high-brow satire, winks at our post-lockdown world and still tries to squeeze in commentary on academia, marriage and the nirvana of entering a supermarket. These days only a studio like Netflix can grant a major director the freedom to make this kind of bold gesture, but it also comes with certain risks. We can acknowledge Baumbach’s effort, even when it begins to feel like a chore.

The plot stays faithful to the novel’s setting of 1980s suburbia. A professor named Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) has achieved a bit of academic celebrity by being the nation’s top specialist in “Hitler Studies.” This entails dissecting the very nature of fascism’s appeal and how the Hitler image has evolved over the decades. His good friend at the college, a professor named Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), brings the same spirit to his Elvis Studies class. At home Jack lives with fourth wife Babbette (Greta Gerwig) and their kids, Heinrich (Sam Nivola), Steffie (May Nivola) and Denise (Raffey Cassidy), as well as a toddler. They all speak in collegial jargon that masks fear and also affection. Jack also suspects Babbette is taking some kind of medication, which Denise also notices. But they have no idea what it is. When a truck collides with a train carrying various tankers, a mysterious chemical substance is let into the air and the town soon panics and is evacuated. This crisis will be the first tremor that will then force the Gladneys to face other truths about themselves and big life questions.

For Baumbach this is an attempt to widen his range. His films usually consist of simple, observant portraits of modern life, like “Frances Ha,” about a millennial trying to get it together, and the emotionally searing divorce drama “Marriage Story.” On the surface the immediate world of “White Noise” has something in common with his “The Squid and the Whale,” about a professor and his brainy kids dealing with the breakdown of stability. But that’s where the comparisons stop. Baumbach is attempting with this film to faithfully turn a text by Don DeLillo into cinema, swerving around different modes of allegory and satire. DeLillo’s literary output is a feverish, intense overall panorama about America, its history and dreamscapes. Characters always speak with a stylized, rich language, including in his brilliant “Libra,” about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s a prime example of why adapting him, or any author in this vein, is a real challenge. Instead of taking DeLillo’s idea about this town as a microcosm of every ill, paranoia, quirk and apocalyptic potential in suburban America, Baumbach wants to capture every idea in the novel, when the book itself feels like the characters and setting are meant precisely as vehicles for ideas that can’t necessarily be literally staged as cinema.

The result is a visually intriguing but exhaustingly unbalanced movie where we struggle to pinpoint what Baumbach wants to say with this film. He’s so concerned with capturing the novel as it is, that the sense of a fleshed out screen narrative is missing. Memorable individual moments are entertaining because they are so well-acted. There is a great scene where Jack and Murray lead a class where they both deliver monologues about Elvis and Hitler, comparing their connections to their mothers, the appeal of crowds and icons, that is both insightful and a hilarious takedown of pompous academic culture. When his family begins to worry about the nearby chemical spill and the need to evacuate, Jack is so confident of his intelligence that he initially dismisses it all despite the clear sound of sirens outside. When the Gladneys finally seek shelter, Baumbach stages some biting moments that now serve as an allegory for those early days of the pandemic, when no one knew what to believe and theories ran wild. But much of this is so abrupt it feels like quick nods that never fully play out. Jokes begin but lead nowhere, like Jack following a vehicle with a pro-gun sticker on the hood, because “these look like people who know how to survive.”

Visually, Baumbach has brought “White Noise” to life. Adam Driver becomes the paunchy Jack, who casually studies the horrors of fascism the way others do math. At night he has dreams of strange specters that seem to embody a fear of death. Greta Gerwig, Baumbach’s partner in real life, is perfect as the ‘80s suburbanite, Babbette, who is clearly pill-popping and contains her own anxieties. The kids are the only truly sane ones, maybe because they have not reached the age where you begin to truly ponder mortality. All the performances are strong because the cast is so good. Visually Baumbach and cinematographer Lol Crawley use the colors and fashions of the ‘80s to create a kind of suburban surrealism, with a brief scene involving the approaching chemical cloud that could be yanked from a J.J. Abrams movie. The end credits become a virtual music video set in a supermarket to LCD Soundsystem. This is actually one of the best moments in the film because finally it lets loose, unconcerned with delivering an essay in every scene. 

After the chemical crisis is overcome, “White Noise” begins to derail with Jack attempting to figure out what is behind Babbette’s pills, leading him into a bizarre, neo-noir scenario involving a Russian in a hotel room. The dialogue becomes puzzles within puzzles, with the only lucid scene being one with a German nun, played by the great Barbara Sukowa, who dissects the nature of faith and the need for belief. It’s a shining moment within a movie that is literally full of ideas. “White Noise” has scenes that comment on how supermarkets provide a sense of safety and emotional comfort in a capitalist society, or musings on what death might actually be like (“maybe it’s a lot of white noise”). But it never finds a center, or a core taken from the DeLillo novel that can serve as the guiding force of the movie. At 2 hours and 16 minutes, that can eventually make the rest of the film drag on. Baumbach should be commended for bringing DeLillo, one of the great modern American authors, to the screen. He just needed to find the right movie to do the novel justice instead of attempting to keep every sentence and comma.

White Noise” begins streaming Dec. 30 on Netflix.