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Review: White Noise

December 2, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Leave it to Noah Baumbach to follow up his stunning 2019 drama Marriage Story with White Noise, an apocalyptic dark comedy about the existential fear of dying that still feels distinctly like a part of his filmography.

Baumbach’s latest finds the writer-director tackling Don DeLillo’s “unfilmable” 1985 post-modernist novel of the same name, and crafting an epic Netflix movie out of the material. It’s a film that shifts genres, unfolding in three distinct chapters, morphing between biting social satire of 1980s suburban malaise and dysfunctional family dramedy.

It’s often very funny, while also working in elements of suspense and end-of-the-world dread that tie into many current, real-world anxieties (in some ways, this is the movie that Netflix’s Don’t Look Up tried and largely failed to be last year).

The main character, Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), is the foremost professor of “Hitler Studies” at a Ohio university, a title that his colleague Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) wants to earn for his own course on Elvis Presley (a bravura early sequence finds the men intellectually sparring during what turns into a combined class on the two historical figures).

Jack is living in suburbia circa the mid-1980s with his wife Babbette (Baumbach’s real life partner Greta Gerwig), and the four kids they are raising together, three of whom are from previous relationships. Oh, and the couple is becoming increasingly consumed by their innate fear of death. The story involves both a mysterious white pill called Dylar that Babbette is taking to get through the day, which her children fear is making her forgetful, and a chemical spill that causes a “toxic airborne event” that upends their sleepy suburban community.

This apocalyptic event, which forces the family to flee, provides the centrepiece of the film, and the first two-thirds of White Noise are damn near excellent. It becomes somewhat of a different movie in the last act, and Baumbach doesn’t quite nail the shift (at least on first viewing). The whole thing ends up feeling a bit messy and overly ambitious, but these are hardly faults. This is Baumbach’s “biggest” film yet as a director, and he handles the action quite deftly, with his adapted screenplay always keeping the film rooted in the unique family dynamics and rapid-fire dialogue exchanges that he does so well.

It’s exciting to see a filmmaker like Baumbach, who has always been a keen observer of human interactions and relationships, swinging for the fences and being allowed to play around on a much larger canvass such as this. As he was in Marriage Story, Driver is a perfect vessel for the filmmaker’s impulses and neuroses. Jack is a character who is very much in Driver’s wheelhouse, and he delivers a performance that is by turns thrilling, comic, and somewhat tragic.

Weird and offbeat, yet almost always entertaining and surprisingly accessible, White Noise is a creative swing that mostly pays off. Shopping trips to the local A&P supermarket, with its shining white aisles, hand-painted sale signs and endless food options, provide both the film’s narrative through-line, and a paean to the glories of 1980s capitalist excess (the grander metaphor of the supermarket-as-life or perhaps a sort of purgatory could have but doesn’t feel heavy-handed).

It all builds to a great end credits sequence (set to a new LCD Soundsystem song!) that leans into the inherent quirkiness, but somehow works as a sublime capper for this story. The whole thing is set to an exceptional musical score by Danny Elfman, the perfect composer to accompany such a bold, eccentric vision as this.

White Noise opens today in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and will be available to stream exclusively on Netflix as of December 30th.

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