It’s ironic that so many film adaptations of purportedly “unfilmable” novels have gone on to achieve the same cult-favorite status as their source material. American Psycho, Inherent Vice and Naked Lunch may not have followed their novel counterpart’s stories to a T, but each of those movies managed to capture their distinct tone and oddball spirit, which is ultimately the key to any successful adaptation.
And while Noah Baumbach — the filmmaker behind bitter family dramedies like The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story — is far from the first name one would expect to bring Don DeLillo’s deeply weird satire White Noise to the screen, he manages to do about as good of a job as one could hope. (The film opens in limited theatrical release Friday ahead of a December 30 streaming debut on Netflix.) The movie itself is an unwieldy and messy beast: it’s way too long, tonally all over the place and features some bizarre miscasting. But that messiness is also part of its charm.
True to the postmodern form of the 1985 novel, White Noise feels less like one straightforward story than several short stories smashed into one. At the center of each of these plot threads is the Gladney family, led by husband Jack (Adam Driver) and wife Babbette (Greta Gerwig) along with their four children combined from various earlier marriages. Throughout the course of the movie they grapple with all sorts of Big Societal Issues — environmental disasters, nuclear radiation, corrupt pharmaceutical companies, relentless media consumption, fear of death, empty consumerism, disintegration of marriages and so much more.
If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Postmodern literature, which was already on its way out the door by the end of the 1990s, was oft-defined by massive thematic ambition. Novels like White Noise or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest weren’t just about modern society’s unhealthy relationship with entertainment, they were about modern society’s unhealthy relationship with everything. Just as unusual as the abundance of themes in a postmodern novel was its rejection of conventional plot structure, and so much of the reader’s enjoyment hinges upon their knowledge of literary traditions.
All that is to say Baumbach’s White Noise suffers a bit from so faithfully following the meta structure of DeLillo’s book. In effect, the film has multiple climaxes and lulls of falling action. A lengthy, Spielbergian middle section titled “The Airborne Toxic Event” escalates the stakes to apocalyptic levels before pivoting into another storyline about marital infidelity. It’s like Godzilla suddenly decided to drop all the monster stuff 90 minutes in and turn into a domestic drama. The ever-shifting narrative is thrilling in the sense that you’re constantly off-balance in the knowledge that anything might happen, but it also makes the movie feel unnecessarily long — repeatedly losing momentum before starting over with a new subplot.
Where Baumbach’s faithfulness does pay off, however, is in perfectly capturing the deadpan satire and amusingly stilted dialogue of DeLillo’s prose. There really aren’t many movies that feel like White Noise does. Even when the story delves into some seriously dark territory, the absurdist tone is always cranked to 11. The characters here never speak like real human beings but instead like walking parodies of academia: “Family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation,” Don Cheadle casually intones to Driver as they stroll through the aisles at a supermarket.
Appropriately, Driver and Cheadle both play middle-aged professors at the local university, constantly babbling on about the respective focuses of each of their courses, Hitler and Elvis. True to the movie’s title, their lectures don’t say much about the weight of either historical figure’s impact on society but rather just a listing of trivial facts and details about each of their lives. All white noise, signifying nothing. Driver delivers the dialogue, much of it ripped verbatim from the novel, with excellent comic timing. On the other hand, Baumbach buries him in prosthetics that are never for a second convincing and consistently distracting. While Driver is undoubtedly one of the best actors working today, you can’t help but feel someone older would have been better suited for the role.
If you haven’t gathered it by now, White Noise is one of the strangest movies you’re likely to see all year. Even stranger is that, on a visual level, this appears to have a budget well within the $100 million range. Netflix has done plenty to put the future of cinema in peril, but it’s tough to imagine any other studio shelling out that kind of cash for something with such niche appeal. For all its flaws, White Noise is worth seeking just to help ensure filmmakers are allowed to take more big swings like this in the future.