Advertised as an absurdist comedy, Noah Baumbach’s White Noise is neither fanciful nor funny.
Adapted by Baumbach from Dom DiLillo’s minimalist satire, it revolves around how a Midwestern family in the 1980s copes with an environmental disaster and their fears of death.
Since each has been married three times before, middle-aged Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) do their best to accommodate the various demands of their blended family.
Although he’s unable to speak German, Jack teaches a Hitler Studies course at the (fictional) College-on-the-Hill, while Babette dabbles in self-help and secretly pops pharmaceuticals.
The catastrophe they must endure is caused by a horrific crash in which a distracted truck driver hauling explosive chemicals crashes into a freight train. The result is a huge, black, toxic cloud that ominously hovers above.
When ordered to evacuate their home, Jack, Babette and their kids pile into their huge Chevolet station wagon. Caught in a steady stream of cars, filled with panicked passengers, they’re headed toward shelter in a Boy Scout camp. There’s an endless stream of idle conversation, prompting Jack to observe that the family is ”the cradle of the world’s misinformation.”
Meanwhile, Jack’s academic colleague Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), an Elvis Studies scholar, proclaims that supermarkets, particularly the local A&P, have become our nirvana. Actually, a long, concluding wide shot of the brightly lit A&P aisles and check-out counters is the creative highlight of the film.
DiLillo’s highly-acclaimed 1985 novel was remarkably prescient about our consumerist, conspiracy-plagued culture. Often deemed un-filmable because of its abstract ideas, both Barry Sonnenfeld and Michael Almereyda were attached to direct before Baumbach.
Unfortunately, Baumbach’s interpretation is simply self-indulgent, spending far too much time focused on Gerwig’s tearful adultery confession and Driver’s seemingly inevitable reaction.
As advertised by the title, the result is ‘white noise,’ which is defined as an all-encompassing sound, embracing all frequencies, that masks all other sounds and is perceived as ‘static’ by the human ear.
So the question is: Do you really want to sit through two hours of dialogue drivel that’s as annoying as crackling static?
On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, White Noise is a frustrating 4, streaming on Netflix.