Review: White Noise – Postmodern Family Fun

Spoilers ahead for this review of White Noise.

White Noise follows Professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) and his bright, babbling children: Heinrich, Denise, Steffie and Wilder. The story doesn’t follow a traditional movie structure and is instead segmented into three parts: the general familial antics, tales of empty pill bottles and domestic intrigue, Gladney’s academic life in the town of Blacksmith; topped by the panic and pandemonium of a toxic spill that becomes a poisonous maelstrom.

People are constantly talking over each other, a television is always running– it’s white noise and it’s all very postmodern. Thankfully, many of the more aimless meanderings and monologues have been forgone for greater action and narrative flow. Yet, some will no doubt still find the structuring and dialogue awkward. “Why are mountains upstate?” reads one line of dialogue. Baumbach’s screenplay has organised and filtered the novel for flow. As for the dialogue he hasn’t written – which is the lion’s share – it still lacks naturality. “Mountains are always upstate.”

It’s an issue that can be felt and forgiven in the book but one that makes even the accomplished cast run for their money. Maybe Yorgos Lanthimos or Wes Anderson’s stilted styles would have done better, yet that’s not to say the acting or directing has failed. None of the cast do poorly and their charisma and charm work wonders for the unique dialogue. Even the younger actors are a pleasure to watch and it’s simply an issue of adaptation. To bend and break any more dialogue would irreparably damage its relationship with the beloved novel, so sacrifices have been made. 

Photo: Wilson Webb/Netflix

And plenty of sacrifices have been made during the leap of adaptation. Delillo’s fond musings on brushing your teeth with your finger, his postmodern, chemically-induced sunsets and the literal white noise of the snow and sleet were cut. Lovers of the literature may take umbrage with the exclusion of the “most photographed barn in America” or the fearless Orest Mercator, and should beware that there will be more alterations to grin and bear. For lesser fans this cuter and condensed version may overtake the original. 

If you don’t know the novel, but you love film then you’ll be treated to Baumbach’s boldest feature yet, inspired by classic Spielberg and with colours that rivals Blade Runner 2049. It’s surely a film for the geeks, after all, the film opens with a lecture on car crash cinema. And if you’re neither, then perhaps you’ll consider watching on the basis of knowing that the film ends with the classic movie tradition, the curtain call and victory lap: the end credits dance sequence.

In fact, like this credits sequence, many of Baumbach’s changes have been to buff out the scuffs and scratches of the book. And the movie is stronger and sweeter for it. Baumbach has kicked-out one-off characters and softened unsavoury quirks. In Baumbach’s White Noise, Heinrich isn’t an intellectual fourteen year-old with a receding hairline at risk of “spraying hundreds of rounds of automatic fire across an empty mall”. Instead, he’s an intelligent boy with his own preoccupations (he plays chess-by-mail with a prisoner and loves the toxic event).

Jack, Murray and Babbette.
Photo: Wilson Webb/Netflix © 2022.

Similarly, Jack’s coworker and friend, Murray Jay Siskind, has had his lechery and erotic desire for the Heimlich manoeuvre wiped clean and remains an upbeat academic. Don Cheadle, by the way, shines as this visiting lecturer and ex-sportswriter. He accompanies the reaching monologues about death and consumerism with grasping hands, and does well to present Delillo’s otherwise bizarre thoughts and theories in the way of a searching scholar. With his salt-and-pepper beard and tweed sport coat, he’s completely transformed into the character and he fits right in alongside the vibrant and lively 80’s locations.

Plus, all of the film’s tenets – hair & makeup, costumes, the sets and the production design – are meticulous marvels. Jack and Murray’s workplace, the College-on-the-Hill, is a broad campus where we see lecture halls with pastel rainbows arching over the doors and the freshman emerge from wood-panelled station wagons in knitted teal sweaters.

The neuro-chemist’s lab bubbles with blue beakers and silver science equipment. Instead of the usual white, the street crosswalk lines are painted a light lime green. Pink neon light seeps throughout the seedy motel and the Gladney household is tightly packed with Wonder Bread, Rice Crispies and Pringles. And all without being garish – the Kodak film brings it all together, filtering it through a nostalgic amber tone. Netflix has been indulgent and it should be enjoyed as this may be the last we see of it now that they’ve decided to tighten their purse strings. 

The Gladneys from White Noise
Photo: Wilson Webb/Netflix

It’s a shame the theatrical release was so scant. Babette’s perm, the A&P Food Store’s hand painted signs, and Danny Elfman’s operatic score all ask to be given the detail and texture of the big screen – the widescreen format and generous views of the film’s hundred-million-dollars even more so. On the small screen maybe you’d miss Denise peering through her green visor at Jack or Andre Benjamin’s sideburns. And it’s almost a family movie, at least half of it literally is just that: the baby kisses cereal boxes at the supermarket while the sisters share a rivalry; there’s a car chase, a big explosion and plenty of silliness.

But this is at odds with the story and its interests, which are smaller in scope and more thoughtful. It’s a TV-movie at heart. The story chews on ideas about television, the ramblings and rumblings of family, consumer culture and the fear of death. The kinds of things you’re better off watching at home, where you can put on subtitles or run the tape back. It’s certainly a strange mix, but for an adaptation of intellectual postmodern literature, the film sure is fun.

Writer and director, Noah Baubach, has adapted Don Delillo’s 1985 book into a gleaming opus. It gleams, absolutely. The dust and grime of the novel has been wiped off for a mirror sheen. For more review content, stay tuned for new updates with FlickLuster. 

Branden Zavaleta

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