Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019) followed The Squid and the Whale (2005), and showed the three-times Oscar-nominated director’s impressive talent for portraying relationship complexities on screen and paying attention to the details and reactions thereof.
In adapting Don DeLillo’s 1985 postmodernist novel White Noise for the screen, Baumbach has further challenged himself, with a look again at family dynamics, but also intellectual superiority, information saturation and impending death, all under the guise of a dystopian tale of American middle-class life in the 1980s. He even transfers some of DeLillo’s words from page to script. It certainly is a labour of love for the filmmaker.
White Noise tells the story of college professor Jack Gladney (played by Marriage Story‘s Adam Driver), wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their assortment of children from their various marriages, all living the middle-class American Dream under one comfortable roof, with humdrum but bustling effect. The constant chatter and crossover dialogue adds to the picture of active family life, where the players ‘fit together’ like jigsaw pieces but are also searching for their own sense of individuality. All the while they are exposed to the glare or ‘white noise’ of brand consumerism and technology overload, which they casually remark on from time to time.
Jack has a preoccupation with death, perhaps because he has achieve cult-like academia status and a career pinnacle at the College-on-the-Hill where he works as the expert on Hitler Studies (while desperately cramming German before someone finds out that he does not know a word of the mother tongue), he feels he is sleeping walking towards inevitable oblivion. As friend and colleague Professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) says at the beginning while lecturing on the destructive and iconic car crash scenes in American cinema: “We need the occasional catastrophe to break up the relentless flow of information”.
Cue real-life disaster when a truck crashes into a rail car causing a chemical spill and releasing an airborne toxic cloud over Jack’s area. Everyone must evacuate – the question is to where, as the location changes as the wind blows the cloud. Dark humour comes from the debacle of this official mobilisation, the lack of clear instruction, and Jack like some soldier in no-man’s land trying to rescue his child’s cuddling toy. Indeed, this whole frenzied spectacle strengthens the family bond and triggers a mini adventure, before ‘normality’ (boredom) creeps back at back home.
Jack’s continued preoccupation with death prompts Siskind to suggest killing someone to alleviate this fear. After discovering Babette is addicted to psychoactive drug Dylar and has been sleeping with supplier Mr. Gray – real name Willie Mink, an erratic Jack locates and shoots Willie at a motel and makes it look like a suicide by placing the gun in the dealer’s hand, but then gets shot in the arm in retaliation, all witnessed by Babette. The comical returns once more as they attempt to get help at a hospital run by a bunch of German nuns who do not believe in God or an afterlife.
At the end, Jack reflects some more, before all characters return to the colourful and hypnotic world of the supermarket to realign with consumerism and the American ideal – and participate in a fun big dance number.
It was always going to be a tall feat for any screenwriter adapting DeLillo’s pivotal work, and there is admiration for Baumbach’s bold attempt. However, it is also questionable how well the book’s liberal and enlightening themes now translate for the present-day audience, where they once might have sparked debate and even incredulity, now seem eerily prophetic and indifferent in a Covid and environment-focused existence of 2022.
With so much fascinating material to cover, Baumbach inevitably loses those really insightful moments and neuroses of his characters from his earlier work. The truth is we feel somewhat less invested here – even when witnessing the intimate, reassuring bedtime discussions between Jack and Babette. The incessant chatter at the very start in the family home and at moments throughout that is meant to illustrate a healthy questioning of one’s surroundings just proves arduous to tune into and care about. The result is the family may well have valid anxieties but the irony is the continual noise erodes our empathy and lessens the film’s impact.
That said Driver does not disappoint and embodies smug academic and showman Jack who presides over all, enrapturing his students, though never quite acknowledging any of them either. The actor commands and drives both the absurd and bleaker moments in this, all the while helpfully sharing his character’s philosophy in the monologues. However, it could just be a series of standalone Jack (Driver) moments and reactions that render Baumbach’s take on White Noise at all engaging, even with a stellar supporting cast.