White Noise ★★★

Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is going through an unusual mid-life crisis. He is a husband, father of four children, and fears death more than all else. His wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), shares this fear, the topic dominating their discussion in bed one evening. They debate whether it would be worse to die or to be alone after the other dies.

MV5BNWFiNGQ5NDctM2U4Mi00OWRiLTkyNzUtOTBmMDQ5MjUwNzFjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjY1MTg4Mzc@._V1_Jack is a professor of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill, though he doesn’t know how to speak German. He is embarrassed by his lack of knowledge of the language – how could he face the other professors if they knew? His fellow professor, Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), is his closest friend at work, their conversation eccentric. Partly because they’re in academia – distant from actualities of life – partly because of the film’s postmodernist source material. It is Professor Suskind’s lecture on the aesthetic of car crashes in cinema that opens White Noise and fittingly sets the ludicrous and dystopian tone the film maintains throughout.

Jack and Babette’s life is turned upside down when the ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ occurs, a chemical spill that occurs following a train collision (Suskind would relish cinematographer Lol Crawley’s depiction of the event). Jack assures his family there is nothing to worry about, shoveling food down during dinner in denial, until an evacuation is mandated.

When he is exposed to the toxin fleeing their home, Jack’s demeanor falls into that of a trance. Him and Babette’s discussions on death to that point had been theoretical, but now he might finally have to face death in actuality. Or maybe not. A cyclical discussion with SIMUVAC (“simulated evacuation”) staff leaves Jack unsure about his pending mortality.

In White Noise, Noah Baumbach reminds those familiar with its source material why the novel was so significant at its time. Published in 1985, one year following the setting of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, White Noise provided author Don DeLillo with an avenue to explore themes of mass consumerism, brainwashing, and existentialism. Professor Suskind’s fascination with pop culture and death culminating in a comparison between Elvis’ and Hitler’s upbringing and captivation of their audiences illustrates how perverse death is compared to life and celebrations of joy and liveliness. But in today’s all-too-common anti-Semitic discourse and violent identity politics, it can be hard to muster a laugh for comedy in White Noise that is deliberately obtuse. The fictional and surreal world that DeLillio wrote about can be eerily similar to our own. And maybe that’s part of the reason Baumbach chose to adapt White Noise as his first film not to be based on a story of his own. Maybe it’s meant to be a little jarring.

White Noise is a fascinating film, but it will face an uphill battle to reach any level of acclaim comparable to Baumbach’s prior film Marriage Story. As a contribution to the budding “pandemic cinema” genre, White Noise is a far more capable film than many we’ve seen these last two years, which will allow the film to earn its admiration, though audiences who will enjoy White Noise the most are those looking for absurdity and arthouse delight.

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