White Noise

by Joanna Langfield

Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of the venerable novel is a project worth rooting for. But it’s a very hard one to recommend.

I didn’t know quite what to make of Don DeLillo’s maximalist satire when I first read it and I feel as conflicted about this ambitious but odd film version. Both are an ambitious, comic look at an American family facing the apocalypse, or perhaps just their own mortalities. Lots to play with there. And play Baumbach, whose best work has been similar thematically, yet far leaner, well, play he does. And that’s a good thing. I’m always rooting for any artist to stretch. Here, however, a filmmaker whose previous work has rung deep for me, feels stretched too far, too thin, even while reaching for the best of intentions.

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig star as a middle aged couple, muddling through, with their blended family and tricky career issues. Even though they’re kind of busy, they still do have time for some deep thinking. Like, what is the meaning of life? When are we going to die? Should I worry about our history coming back to bite us or maybe the toxic waste fire burning outside my window? The balancing of all that is smart and intriguing, both as a plot and its telling.  But then, as it all spins itself into a fearful frenzy, both that plot and the film, lost me. There are some occasional lucid and sweet moments, and yes, there is a message of comfort and compassion that sneaks through, but much of the rest feels frenetic and, at times, desperate to please. It has been thought that DeLillo’s epic was unfilmable. I applaud Baumbach for taking on that challenge. But, aside from the intellectually or artistically curious, I’m not sure his final result will work for anyone else as more than just white noise.