I know that I read Don DeLillo’s post-modern novel White Noise in high school (along with his Lee Harvey Oswald fan fiction Libra) because I still see my beat-up copy on a friend’s bookshelf every time I drop by for a visit. I just could not recall anything that happens or is said in that book if asked, while similar works from authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and Barry Hannah have remained vivid in my memory. That’s okay, though, because Noah Baumbach is on-hand to transcribe DeLillo’s novel word-for-word to jog my memory. Baumbach’s live-action illustration of White Noise gives DeLillo’s words the Shakespeare in the Park treatment, parroting without edit or interpretation. It’s the worst kind of literary adaptation, the kind that runs itself ragged trying to encapsulate everything touched on in its source material instead of reducing it to core essentials. It’s aggressive in that approach, too, as its inhuman archetype characters recite dialogue directly off pages of the novel in a deliberately alienating, absurdist exercise that has no business leaving the art school context of a fiction-writing workshop or a black box theatre. All Baumbach has accomplished here, really, is issuing an $80mil reminder to audiences that White Noise is worth a read (which, to be fair, is a more noble waste of Netflix’s money than most).
The second half of this 136min existential epic is almost worth the exercise. White Noise starts off as a sweaty, distinctly Netflixy disaster thriller in which an academic couple (Adam Driver & Greta Gerwig) bungle their family’s escape from an “Airborne Toxic Event” that threatens to damage the health of the entire college town where they live. Between the Altmanesque overlapping dialogue, the Spielbergian wonders-stares at the sky, and the academia in-jokes about the overlap between Hitler Studies & Elvis Scholarship, there is plenty enough movie in that first half alone to justify a standalone feature. It’s just a movie without much of a point, nor many successful jokes. In the second half, Driver & Gerwig really get into the selfish secrecy and personal struggles with existential dread that threaten to melt down their seemingly perfect marriage, and the purpose of adapting the novel in the first place starts to become clear. If Baumbach wanted to make a movie about the crushing fear of death that keeps these characters from truly connecting with each other, I don’t know why he’d waste time running rampant making a disaster epic first, instead of either editing those events out of the picture entirely or summarizing them in flashback. Adapting a novel does not mean you have to adapt all of the novel since, you know, cinema & fiction are two different artforms with drastically different qualities & necessities.
White Noise occasionally lands on some striking imagery by leaning into the intense artificiality of “The Netflix Look,” especially in scenes set at an overlit A&P grocery store (a setting it milks for all its worth in its concluding LCD Soundsystem music video). More often, it’s just a baffling waste of talented performers’ time & energy. Gerwig delivers an emotionally gutting monologue mid-film that’s a welcome reminder how talented she is on both sides of the camera. Driver’s goofball physicality is naturally funny throughout, even when the words he’s reciting are too stiff to land a punchline. If this were a shrewdly edited-down domestic drama about their crushing, isolating fears of death in the aftermath of a bizarre “Airborne Toxic Event,” the movie might have achieved the intellectual transcendence it’s straining for. Instead, the event itself is given equal weight, exhausting the audience before the core story even takes shape. I have no doubt this adaptation will have a dedicated cult, though. Diehard fans of Charlie Kaufmann, Under the Silver Lake, and getting cornered at parties by chatty academics will find plenty to love here. Personally, all I saw was a reminder that the things I love in creative writing are not the same qualities I value in cinema, as well as an ominous vision of what will inevitably happen when some misguided fool “adapts” Infinite Jest.