Never in a million years would I have imagined Noah Baumbach of all people ended up making a big-budget film and it reportedly cost US$80-100 million (!). We’re talking about the same director whose primary works were indie dramedies/dramas from 1995’s Kicking and Screaming to 2005’s The Squid and the Whale and 2019’s Marriage Story.
But it’s nice to see him venturing out of his comfort zone, albeit not entirely since his latest film — White Noise — still retains his signature deadpan humour and all things witty with a satirical edge. Adapted from Don DeLillo’s “unfilmable” 1985 novel of the same name, the film takes place in the 1980s era, focusing on a “Hitler studies” college professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and his dysfunctional family. This includes his depressed wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig) who has been secretly taking mysterious pills and their four children (Raffey Cassidy’s Denise, Sam Nivola’s Heinrich and May Nivola’s Steffie) from Jack’s and Babette’s prior marriages with the exception of Wilder (twins Henry and Dean Moore).
White Noise started off like a typical Baumbach dramedy anchored by decent turns from Driver, Gerwig and Don Cheadle, where the latter plays Jack’s eccentric colleague Murray Siskind. From there, Baumbach blends different tonal shifts as it moves along with elements of horror (yup, there’s a jump scare included), noir-style thriller and even a disaster-movie genre thrown into the mix.
The latter is what costs a hefty budget for the film, which also includes the spectacular crash sequence involving a tanker and a train. The result of the massive crash causes the tanker’s toxic chemicals to leak into the air. The ensuing “airborne toxic event” stretch during the second act is easily the film’s most entertaining moment as Jack and his family packed their belongings into their station wagon following an evacuation.
With the help of Lol Crawley’s stylish cinematography which gives the film a distinctly ’80s visual sheen and Danny Elfman’s multifaceted score subtly mirrors its ever-changing tonal shifts, Baumbach’s first foray into the disaster-movie territory is surprisingly a thrill ride. A thrill ride not only in a traditional sense but it’s also interesting to see where the film would go from here, especially with Baumbach at the helm. His trademark quirky style happens to be a right fit for the “airborne toxic event” disaster, allowing the subsequent bizarre and surreal moments that cleverly alternate between some darkly comic touches and the absurdity of societal anxieties, paranoia and fear of death.
But despite Baumbach’s confident direction in the entire second act, White Noise ultimately falters once the third and final act takes place. In fact, it almost derails whatever has come before with a less-than-satisfying payoff. His attempt to make a sharp turn into the noir territory may have some noteworthy moments, particularly a scene that recalls Brian De Palma’s 360-degree camera pan seen in the John Travolta-starred Blow Up (1981).
And yet, it feels oddly disconnected and even made me start to lose interest as the film reaches the end. It doesn’t help either when the film overstays its welcome with its protracted 136-minute length. By the time the film tries to get all upbeat again with an off-kilter musical dance number accompanied by LCD Soundsystem’s “New Body Rhumba”, I was left wondering about the overall sheer oddity that Baumbach tries to do here. White Noise works better in its individual parts but it just doesn’t gel together as a coherent whole.
White Noise is currently streaming on Netflix.