Review: ‘White Noise’ is a tonally-confused disaster with Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig


Don DeLillo’s acclaimed 1985 novel “White Noise” has long been deemed “unfilmable.” Now we know why — Noah Baumbach’s adaptation is a tonally-confused misfire on Netflix.

WTOP’s Jason Fraley reviews ‘White Noise’

Don DeLillo’s acclaimed 1985 novel “White Noise” has long been deemed “unfilmable.” Now we know why — Noah Baumbach’s adaptation is a tonally-confused misfire on Netflix.

Set in 1984, Ohio, the film follows Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a Jewish college professor of “Hitler studies.” He lives with his fourth wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their blended family of four kids, two from Jack’s previous marriages (Heinrich and Steffie), one from Babette’s previous marriage (Denise) and one that they conceived together (Wilder).

The family struggles when Babette begins acting strangely, zoning out with a fear of death as she pops pills of the experimental drug Dylar, while Jack has visions of a mysterious man trying to kill him. At the same time, a cataclysmic train accident causes a toxic cloud of chemical waste to hover over the town, forcing a mass evacuation of all residents.

Driver is much more of a pushover here than his explosive husband in Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.” His best scene comes with Don Cheadle, a professor of Elvis Studies, as they share a back-and-forth lecture of Hitler and Elvis facts that is more provocative than anything in the movie. This scene alone may be why Driver earned a Golden Globe nod.

Baumbach also reunites with wife Gerwig, who cowrote and starred in “Frances Ha” (2012) and “Mistress America” (2015) before becoming a director in her own right with “Lady Bird” (2017), “Little Women” (2019) and “Barbie” later this July. She might as well be a plastic doll in “White Noise,” constantly zoning out with a series of unlikable decisions.

Of course, you don’t need every character to be likable. Plenty of great films follow anti-heroes. Baumbach himself has turned selfish, quirky characters into compelling stories plenty of times before, with Laura Linney cheating on Jeff Daniels in “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) or Adam Driver cheating on Scarlett Johansson in “Marriage Story” (2019).

The difference is that those movies picked a lane. One was a coming-of-age dramedy. The other was a divorce drama. We knew exactly what we were watching. “White Noise” is billed as an absurdist drama comedy, but it’s also a disaster movie like “Independence Day,” a family road movie like “Vacation” and a revenge thriller like “Unfaithful.”

“White Noise” has three or four interesting movies hidden inside, but they don’t work when crammed together. At one point, I thought the “Airborne Toxic Event” would become a clever COVID-19 allegory, but the evacuation and quarantine sequence quickly fades away as the family returns home like nothing ever happened. Nothing to see here, folks!

By the time Baumbach reaches a seedy motel in Act Three, I was completely out of the movie, laughing at its tonal inconsistency. What a shame because I had high hopes for “White Noise” when I read that it had premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. Seriously don’t bother. Save yourself two hours and watch something else on Netflix.

2 stars


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