“White Noise has merit as a satire but loses itself in a mire of existential angst that feels as fabricated as its characters, turning the film into a misfire.”
Death comes for us all. Some just fear it more than others. When fear is fed to you on a daily basis by the news media, maybe it’s not that strange that you start thinking danger is lurking around every corner. Noah Baumbach’s satire White Noise, based on the same-titled novel by Don DeLillo, takes an entertaining but uneven look at American paranoia in a time when we are just crawling out of our pandemic holes. So the film is timely, at least. Probably the most Wes Anderson that Baumbach has ever been, White Noise works best in the over-the-top disaster movie pastiche of the first half; the second half, which is a fairly obvious look at another kind of epidemic, the opioid crisis that holds America in its grip, peters out before a nonsensical finale fully deflates the film, despite a fun cameo by Barbara Sukowa.
Jack Gladney (Adam Driver sporting quite a gut) is a college professor in Advanced Nazism. He is the world’s pre-eminent scholar on Adolf Hitler, which is why he is secretly learning German (his attempts to say the line “I eat potato salad” in German provide perhaps the film’s biggest laugh). His wife Babette (Greta Gerwig, in impressive ’80s curls) teaches an array of classes at the local church. Together they have four kids: Denise (Raffey Cassidy), Heinrich (Sam Nivola), Steffi (May Nivola), and Wilder. Jack is rather preoccupied with death, which is probably why he is a death cult scholar. Babette secretly takes pills, but Denise discovers her secret and worries about her mom. Worry is a big thing in this family anyway.
When a truck full of flammable gas hits a freight train full of a chemical substance, the Gladneys’ home town comes under threat. As long as the thick smoke rising up from the location of the accident is still called a ‘billowing cloud’ by the authorities there is nothing to fear, Jack and Babette assure their kids, although panic starts to grip them too. They have to remain the calm center of the household, so as to not send the children into a frenzy. When the billowing cloud becomes an ‘airborn toxic event’ though and the town has to evacuate, the forced cool of Jack and Babette starts to show cracks.
What ensues for the rest of the first half is a typical disaster movie, something akin to M. Night Shyamalan’s 2008 disaster The Happening. Luckily Baumbach holds his tongue firmly in his cheek during this part, setting up some ridiculous set pieces and wonderful nonsensical dialogue between Driver and various volunteer workers trying to keep the evacuees calm. Jack has a problem because he was outside for two and a half minutes as he was filling up the car at a hastily abandoned gas station. He might actually die in 15 years, or so the volunteer’s computer says. For someone like Jack, a hypochondriac who fears death, this should be bad news, but it seems to oddly liberate him.
The threat of the toxic cloud abruptly ends though, and so does the fun of the film. The second half focuses back on Babette’s pill-popping problem, as Denise and Jack start sleuthing to figure out what this mysterious drug is that Babette is taking. A clear comment on the US’ pharmaceutical industry-driven addiction to painkillers and the like, the remainder of White Noise delves deeper into people’s innate fear of death, but unfortunately the film rarely goes beyond surface level aphorisms like “Isn’t fear news?” The satire during the airborne toxic event is more pointed, if rarely truly biting, in the way it looks at the fear-inducing role of the news in the US media landscape. The family at the centre of White Noise lives in a perpetual state of worry because they have been told there is a lot to worry about. This is why the above-mentioned aphorism being said out loud by one of the characters is so underwhelming, as the first half of the film shows you can convey the same sentiments in less blunt ways.
The characters in Baumbach’s films have rarely felt like actual people, but never less so than in White Noise. Some of the cast clearly have problems with the artifice of it all, Gerwig in particular. An emotional scene late in the film shows that it’s not her acting skills, but the quirky façade for the rest of the film that is hampering her performance. Driver fares better, although the success rate varies from scene to scene. The one actor who feels like a true fish in the water in this setting is Don Cheadle as an Elvis-obsessed colleague of Driver. There is a reason why Wes Anderson, master of this kind of quirk, virtually always employs the same cast, having found a group of actors attuned to his tone. Baumbach has an extensive cast, but the likes of André Benjamin, Jodie Turner-Smith, and Lars Eidinger only show up for bit parts that barely make any impression, as do the two younger children, characters that clearly should have been excised.
The toxic disaster has a lot of overtones of the recent COVID epidemic, giving the film a topical feel, and White Noise lightly touches upon other hot topics of our times such as conspiracy theorists and climate change, but in essence it is a tale of two films. It would go too far to call the first half a film about a disaster and the second half a disaster in and of itself, but this new direction Noah Baumbach took after Marriage Story feels like a dead end. White Noise has merit as a satire but loses itself in a mire of existential angst that feels as fabricated as its characters, turning the film into a misfire.