“Do not advance the action according to a plan.”
How do we maintain a sense of fulfillment or even purpose in a world that is constantly shifting? How can we hope to feel secure – in ourselves, our work or our relationships – when peril could emerge at any given moment from the most unlikely of places?
Where we look for refuge in the modern world can often be where we find ourselves most at risk of harm, whether it be the carcinogen-infused chewing gum that serves as an alternative to smoking, or the ever-reliable partner who lives a double life of betrayal. These endless contradictions and (mostly) banal misadventures are the “White Noise” at the heart of Noah Baumbach’s great absurdist epic for Netflix, an adaptation of the 1985 novel by Don DeLillo.
At first, the $85 million quasi-disaster flick seems like a strange one to take on for a 53-year-old writer-director who has spent the last 27 years building his oeuvre as a largely independent, small-scale filmmaker. But after a couple decades of examining marital and familial dynamics culminated in his last pic, “Marriage Story,” earning six Oscar noms and winning one, what more to do other than take Netflix’s blank check and do his best Spielberg impression?
“White Noise” is also the perfect excuse to reunite his muses Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig as Jack and Babette Gladney, respectively. With each other as their fourth spouses, and with their blended brood of four children, life is pretty good in the anonymous 1984 midwestern college town they call home. Jack is Driver’s most colorful and outright hilarious role to date, allowing the actor to show off his physical comedy chops, while still offering plenty of more subtle and even emotional moments. Few scenes in 2022 have a stronger laugh-out-loud factor than the Hitler Studies professor struggling to learn German or the father of four running like a linebacker and crawling like an infantryman across a field of panicked refugees to rescue his daughter’s stuffed rabbit.
Driver would not be as compelling without great supporting players to bounce off, though. Every corner of the ensemble is perfectly in step with Baumbach’s vision, walking his tightrope of absurdity, with Gerwig and Don Cheadle as the standouts. Gerwig brings a welcome sincerity to the film’s most emotional and vulnerable moments, all of which occur opposite Driver. Cheadle’s Murray Siskind is a professor of American culture who wants to develop a field of study focused on Elvis, a mission that leads to one of the film’s most captivating sequences. Invited by Siskind, Jack executes a dueling lecture against his fellow professor, highlighting the Freudian parallels between Hitler and Elvis – all while editor Matthew Hannam masterfully crosscuts from the lecture to the train crash that upends everyone’s lives for the second act. Raffey Cassidy (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” “Vox Lux”) also makes the most of her screen time as the eldest child of Jack and Babette, while German character actor Lars Eidinger makes for a grimy, drugged-out surprise after his standout role in “Irma Vep” earlier this year on HBO Max.
“White Noise” more than any other Baumbach film to date stands out as a technical marvel, as well. Jess Gonchor’s sprawling production design brings to life everything from the oversaturated beacon of ’80s consumerism that is the A&P Supermarket to the summer camp residents of the town flee to when forced to evacuate. The literal sets as well as the film’s set-piece sequences are enhanced by impressive effects, blended seamlessly into Lol Crawley’s sweeping and lively Kodak film photography. The unknowable threats and shifting tones of “White Noise” are well underscored by Danny Elfman’s best work in recent memory, featuring tracks that range from bubbly to downright ominous.
Thankfully, the film culminates with one of the year’s great endings, as the whole town dances throughout the A&P to LCD Soundsystems’ “new body rhumba.” The original song is the best in any film this year and serves as a reminder that – if you can make it – good times are waiting on the other side of the worst.
“White Noise” is now streaming on Netflix.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."