- White Noise
- Directed by Noah Baumbach
- Written by Noah Baumbach, based on the novel by Don DeLillo
- Starring Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig and Don Cheadle
- Classification R; 136 minutes
- In select theatres Dec. 2, streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 30
It all starts at the supermarket. In Noah Baumbach’s ambitious, thrilling and necessarily messy adaptation of Don DeLillo’s seminal postmodern novel White Noise, the local A&P grocery store is the be all and end all of the contemporary American psyche, at least circa 1985. “All the letters and numbers are here, all the colours of the spectrum, all the voices and sounds, all the code words and ceremonial phrases,” DeLillo wrote. “It is just a question of deciphering, rearranging, peeling off the layers of unspeakability.”
Along with his meticulous, magnificent production team, Baumbach deciphers, rearranges, peels, but also slices, dices and more (julienne fries!), stocking his onscreen A&P with all manner of resurrected brands of a slightly bygone era. Boxes of Sugar Smacks cereal, cans of Sanka, rainbow packets of Carefree gum, an aisle dedicated to all-white generic-brand items that recall the no-frills branding of Repo Man (or, for Canadians, the no-name No Frills): together these items of consumer culture constitute a fluorescent-bright comfort zone for the Gladney clan at the centre of White Noise.
There is college professor Jack (Adam Driver), the leading expert on “Hitler Studies.” There is his fourth wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), who fears death more than she loves Jack – and she loves her husband dearly, or at least enough to read to him dime-store erotica. There are their four children of varying degrees of precociousness and parentage (only the youngest, near-silent toddler Wilder, is the product of both Jack and Babette). And then there is Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), not a member of the family but a close enough academic colleague of Jack’s at the local College-on-the-Hill that we might as well lump him in here.
As Baumbach loosely but energetically traces the structure of DeLillo’s capital-I Intellectual epic, all the characters above find themselves starting or stopping their stories at the A&P. The Gladneys are there just before an “airborne toxic event” suddenly throws their unnamed Ohio town into chaos, giving Baumbach licence to inject a COVID-panic booster of a metaphor into DeLillo’s original strain of all-American paranoia. And the Gladneys are there afterward, their lives altered in ways big and small, yet still compelled to fill their carts and stock their shelves. Because, as Murray puts it, “Here we don’t die, we shop.”
Is the grocery store the skeleton key to unlocking DeLillo’s novel, and thus Baumbach’s film? Almost certainly, so much as White Noise can be boiled down to just one thing or theme or feeling – a good-to-have problem that Baumbach uses to his advantage. With the same electric back-and-forth wit that powered his funniest films (Frances Ha, Mistress America, The Meyerowitz Stories) balanced with the reverence of a grad student who knows he cannot quite reach the heights of those he studies, Baumbach pulls off an adaptation that is as dynamic and complicated as the source material.
Taking the approach that any cinematic version of DeLillo’s work needs to go as big as the author’s metaphors – the opposite tack that David Cronenberg took with 2012′s Cosmopolis – Baumbach reaches for near-Spielbergian heights with his film’s first half. As the mysterious toxic threat looms over Jack and his family, it seems that the entire world is reduced to staring up at the sky in awe, as impressed with the danger as they are terrified by it. But there is a distinct, and welcome, lack of sentimentality here, too, with Baumbach able to swerve the tone into a more cerebral version of National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise, of all things. Imagine if Clark Griswold studied fascism and carried around a teeny-tiny pistol, and you’ll start to get the idea.
The film’s second half dips into the kind of marriage story that Baumbach is more familiar with, all inevitable jealousies and misplaced passions. Yet despite being more firmly in the director’s wheelhouse, it is here where White Noise starts to sputter and wheeze. Maybe it is because former Frances Ha co-stars Driver (sporting a prosthetic paunch) and Gerwig (frizzy hair and Minnie Mouse sweaters) are better at playing off their onscreen children than each other – the pair’s chemistry is too firmly lab-controlled.
Or maybe it is because Baumbach cannot for the life of him control who or what Lars Eidinger’s character should be, this German drug peddler who saunters into the third act with a broad level of sleaze. But no missteps here are fatal, and given the intimidating reputation of DeLillo’s work (”unfilmable!” they all said, and maybe they’re right), challenges are to be expected, even anticipated.
The biggest miss? Baumbach neglects to include Jack and Murray’s visit to “the most photographed barn in America,” which offers DeLillo an opportunity to delve into the hall-of-mirrors concept of the simulacrum: what happens when we get lost in taking pictures of taking pictures, as Murray puts it.
Perhaps in Baumbach’s version, the A&P stands in for the barn. If any supermarket could be the most photographed supermarket in America, it is the perfectly designed, deceptively comforting one serving the shoppers of 2022′s White Noise.