Reviewed for FilmFactual.com and BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach, novel by Dom DeLillo
Cast: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, May Nivola, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, Henry Moore, Dean Moore
Screened at: Netflix subscription, 12/30/22
Opens: December 30, 2022 streaming
You’ve probably heard people say, “I’m not afraid of dying.” First, what do they mean? Are they not sorry to lose out on the good things that continued existence would offer? Do they not simply care that their existence, which they take for granted, will no longer be? Second: They are probably lying. Just as racists are the first ones to say “I don’t care if he’s white, black or polka-dot,” people who put on a show of bravery by appearing devil-may-care are likely to be scared shitless of dying.
We bring this up because Dom De Lillo’s 1985, postmodern novel is more about the fear of death than any other emotion: that death is stronger even than love. But Noah Baumbach’s movie, which follows the De Lillo’s test closely, is thematically about our fear of dying. In the film as in the novel, people take a pill that allegedly frees them of that fear, but of course the anxiety about dying is too strong for any pill to work. Our anxieties are symbolized by a white, poisonous cloud that wraps itself around a neighborhood. Even when nothing appears wrong, our anxieties are driven as well by the endless media’s endless stream, call it a white noise, projected with such force that one of the children in “White Noise” recites a part of one TV ad in her sleep.
If you get the idea that “White Noise” is a mordant film, you can drop that assumption, since Baumbach’s happily embraces the humor in the novel, injecting absurd analogies, going off on wild tangents. The family that “White Noise” deals with is ordinary, mundane, commonplace, and at the same time the dialogue is not what you’re likely to hear if you’re a typical man or women concerned about bills, your job stability, or your marriage—which, by the way, are concerns that distract us from our fear of death.
Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) narrates the whole shebang. He’s the chair of the department in a mid-west college and founder of a department called Hitler Studies. As such he parades about the campus with a black, academic town. For some of us, the next idea might be found either ordinary or far out: his fourth wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) shares the bringing up of kids mostly from his previous marriages. His life becomes even more unusual since like others in the vicinity he is forced to evacuate his home when a toxic white cloud appears, thereby accentuating the possibility of death.
In the classroom Jack does something else out of the usual. He teams up with Murray (Don Cheadle) a fellow teacher whose course deals with celebrity, at this time with Elvis. They have a joint discussion with their classes evoking the idea that Hitler and Elvis were similar, since, what-do-you-know, they both loved dogs. The classroom is an ideal locale for absurdist scenes like that.
Of family discussions, the principal one is a discussion about who will die first, Jack or Babette, with Babette’s insistence that she would prefer to die before her husband—leading us in the theater audience to wonder whether she is outright lying, or clueless about her real feelings.
Like other classics, “White Noise” has universal motifs, as useful today as it was in 1985. Don’t leave the theater before the final scene shows a huge A&P supermarket, the customers and clerks dancing as though they were at a Saturday night party. What is communicated here is that life in America may be screwed up but let’s take it as it is and enjoy. Whether you enjoy the film will depend on your acceptance of dark humor, of theater of the absurd, and of family dramas with the kinds of quirky people you won’t find on sitcoms and soaps. Director Baumbach is in his métier, having helmed such idiosyncratic fare that allow some of us to compare his treatment of relationships like those in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.”
136 minutes. © 2023 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B