Ambitious and earnest but fitful and awkward, Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s now classic 1985 novel, White Noise (which debuted Friday on Netflix) has a conflict at its weird heart, and that conflict is between DeLillo and film. Arguably, but not really, no other living major American novelist has such a distinctive stylized voice in terms of dialogue and character — call it High Meta Ironic Alienation In-Joke Idiom. DeLillo’s people are always too smart for their own good, and talk to each other around craters of pain and emptiness in metaphor-rich rants — a kind of shared dialect of referential banter, in conversations we can feel they’ve had many times already, and now all that’s left is to hypercharge what’s said, spice it up with strained insights, reach for symbolic gestures, glibly punch for the obscure rather than submit to the mundane.
It’s not realism, despite DeLillo’s intense devotion to addressing whatever Zeitgeist is pounding us in the moment, and to film it poses a Difficulty Score of Through the Roof. It’s easy to understand the urge — DeLillo is one of the last of the red-hot visionary modernists, an epochal writer for whom the forever-mutating contemporary world is an unmappable empire of metamorphosing absurdity, and for whom the diamond-cut mysteries of perfectly, and disarmingly, crafted sentences are a method into the madness. Reading a book like White Noise — easily DeLillo’s funniest and most charming novel, though funny and charming are otherwise rare items on the DD menu — is like waking up on a cross-country bus trip to somewhere, and seeing the American madscape clearly for the first time.
Only David Cronenberg, that master of adapting the unadaptable, has heretofore attempted a DeLillo movie, with 2011’s Cosmopolis, and he largely succeeded by leaning into DeLillo’s archness and letting the deadeye dialogue freeze in the air. (“All industries have to be harshly eliminated,” Samantha Morton says at one point, playing the part of an asset manager’s Chief of Theory. “New markets have to be forcibly claimed, and old markets have to be re-exploited. Destroy the past, remake the future.”) Of course, being unfilmable is nothing for a novelist to be ashamed of; it’s the filmmaker’s gamble to lose. Baumbach had his work cut out for him. For one thing, White Noise is oddly structured, divided neatly into three sections, the second of which famously involves the suburban onslaught of the “Airborne Toxic Event,” a manmade disaster that upends the story’s suburban paradise and is largely an extended metaphor for deeper lurking dilemmas, like marital trust and the fragility of privilege and security.
Baumbach faithfully holds to the novel’s roving idea of itself, although it makes for a curious movie. First, we meet Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a somewhat self-satisfied academic (the primary scholar at work in Hitler Studies), who basks complacently in his Midwestern-college life and large bustling family (composed of his newest wife, played by Greta Gerwig, and five children from multiple marriages). He and his wife, Babette, both fear death and privately fear surviving each other; otherwise, their life is a pleasant charade of campus ritual, supermarket trips, and family meals scored to the children’s precocious debates about disaster, death, and the news.
Then the Toxic Event strikes, a train crash that unleashes a chemical cloud and forces the town, and the Gladneys, to evacuate, at night, in the rain. In the book, the Event itself is a barely discernible off-screen entity; in the film, it has a lavish CGI primacy. Amid this protracted sequence of middle-class chaos — possibly poison air, emergency shelters, panic, Covid-y masking — Gladney’s determined calm-Dad savoir-faire is plagued and tested, most of all by the clues he’s getting that Babette is covertly taking a mysterious pharmaceutical. For those unfamiliar with the novel, it may provoke some head-scratching that the Event, once the emergency is over, disappears from the narrative, and Gladney’s sudden uncertainty of his wife’s true self becomes what White Noise is really about.
Baumbach’s approach to the DeLillo Dialogue Problem is what, ultimately, makes the film flounder — he treats the rhythmic tides of satirically lofty dialogue, between the Gladney family members and between Gladney and his equally pretentious academic colleagues (including Don Cheadle as an Elvis expert looking for departmental traction), as though it were slapstick farce, overlapping the often freestanding pronouncements in a comedic spray that’s neither funny nor thematically eloquent. Actors don’t talk like this; DeLillo characters do. Only a late-game face-off between Gladney and Babette — because it’s a straight, heated conflict — makes dramatic sense of DeLillo’s language. There may not be actors alive who can make art out of DeLillo’s locutions, and Driver and Gerwig struggle with the stranger lines (“Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to plan.”), just as they do with communicating debilitating thanatophobia, which in the novel was felt between the lines.
Ultimately, DeLillo’s satire, so potent and echoing on the page, feels forced and even outdated on film, at least partially because it is that: What was freshly bizarre in 1985 is old news to us today, and the film comes off feeling oddly nostalgic for the days when TV commercials seemed to be commenting on our lives all day long, and the Ballardesque spectacle of televised vehicle crashes was a fresh and disturbing presence in our lives. Even the title is a 20th-century televisual artifact, to which there is no equivalent today.
The dazzling fecundity of supermarkets? The cozy sense of Midwestern academia, with entire departments filled with silly conjectural deconstructionist ideas about pop culture? A book from and about the ’80s, or, more accurately, the post-’70s, can be understood as being rooted in the cultural shitstorm of its day, just like a movie from the time. But converting those obsessions into a film 37 years later introduces an unavoidable layer of irrelevance and quaintness. If only we had mere broadcast television to worry about today, and occasional toxic leaks, and marriage secrets.
But say we pretend there is no source novel, and Baumbach’s film claims its own thematic farmstead — then what is it? A gentle parable, at best, bristling with an ambiguous interest in the failure of the Reagan Era, and a dread of masculine impugnment. It certainly has what many other Baumbach movies have starved for lack of: a rich cataract of stuff, random resonating cultural details, a sense of painting a portrait of an idea about America. However you take it, don’t let it steer you away from visiting DeLillo where he really lives, in the book.
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