REVIEW | Not even Adam Driver and Don Cheadle could save White Noise - it's sadly an unspeakably dull watch

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Adam Driver as Jack and Greta Gerwig as Babette in White Noise.
Adam Driver as Jack and Greta Gerwig as Babette in White Noise.
Photo: Wilson Webb/Netflix

Based on the Don DeLillo novel of the same name, we follow a professor of Hitler studies and his family as they navigate their way through harmful medication, familial conflict, and a poisonous cloud of chemicals in mid-'80s America.

If I were rating White Noise according to how much it lives up to its title, it would be an impassioned, unqualified five-star masterpiece all the way.

Sadly, I'm reviewing and rating it according to more typical standards like story, character, direction/writing/acting, and basic competence in doing what it sets out to achieve. And from this point of view, Noah Baumbach's latest is an ambitious but frankly aggravating failure. Unless, of course, its primary purpose was to prove that the highly acclaimed novel by Don DeLillo on which it is based is indeed absolutely unfilmable – in which case, well done, Noah!

I'm not generally a huge Baumbach fan, I have to say, as I find the majority of his films to be painfully pretentious and smug, but he really won me over with 2019's Marriage Story, and I was very much hoping that he would do so again – especially as this time around he was adapting what is apparently a very ambitious and acclaimed novel (I haven't read it, but I've certainly heard of its author) that satirises things like consumerism, the pharmaceutical industry and academia. A catch-22 for peacetime mundanity, perhaps? In theory, I should have totally been in the bag for this.

In practice, though, it's been a very, very long time since I've come across a film this impenetrable; this willfully alienating. And at 136 minutes, that makes for an unspeakably dull and frustrating watch. 

Not that "impenetrable" is necessarily a kiss of death for a film. David Lynch – especially bat dung crazy David Lynch – is one of my favourite filmmakers, and I, for one, preferred Donnie Darko before the director's cut came around and over-explained everything. But even when something like Donnie Darko or Twin Peaks: The Return pushes you to the brink of sanity (or at least comprehension), there's an underlying humanity to them that keeps you emotionally engaged.

With White Noise, however, not only is it very difficult to understand what the hell is going on, let alone what Baumbach (and DeLillo) is actually trying to say, but it's almost impossible to care about any of it.  

And it's not like there is a ton to understand in terms of plot; it's just so vague and messy that it becomes like grabbing a fistful of rain. Even the official IMDB synopsis doesn't know what the hell to do with it as it just reads: "dramatises a contemporary American family's attempts to deal with the mundane conflicts of everyday life while grappling with the universal mysteries of love, death, and the possibility of happiness in an uncertain world." As synopses go, that most definitely describes a story.

Stuff does actually happen in White Noise, though - quite a bit, in fact - but not only do these events feel like numerous subplots that fail to cohere into an actual story, but each of them is approached with such detachment that it honestly feels like you're watching them unfold through several miles of plexiglass via a telescope from the other side of the galaxy.

This is clearly quite intentional because everything about the film is done from such a view but to what effect? To show the deadening effect of modern life? Fine, but tons of films and TV shows have done that without being deadening themselves. To comment on the grim stroll towards death? OK, but the film is clearly trying to point at the little things in life that make the whole thing more than just a prelude to eternal nothingness, but its lack of emotion means that it never amounts to anything more affecting than an intellectual exercise carried out by robots.  

This is ironic detachment taken to such ludicrous extremes that it undermines anything and everything that could make the film work. Unnatural, hyper-real dialogue is a feature of most fiction that isn't going for pure naturalism, but the dialogue here is something else entirely. The most obvious comparison is to Baumbach's sometimes collaborator Wes Anderson, but it's more like an AI-generated version of a parody of Wes Anderson than the real deal – which, come to think of it, is pretty much true of the whole film. 

There are also echoes of Woody Allen here, especially in terms of its intellectual and absurdist trappings – Baumbach has constantly pointed to Allen as his greatest influence – but while Allen, at his best, brings a real crackling energy and an underlying humanity (to say nothing of his unparalleled ability with genius comic one-liners) to his scripts, every word of dialogue here merely sounds completely unnatural and more than a little pretentious. 

And if you think that the film's ace cast that includes Adam Driver (looking, oddly enough, just like Steve Coogan), Greta Gerwig (as usual), and Don Cheadle can do anything to uplift this leaden, laboured dialogue, you're in for an even bigger disappointment. I'm a pretty big fan of all three of these actors, but they are all, quite genuinely, absolutely terrible here. If the extreme ironic detachment didn't already incinerate the effectiveness of the dialogue, then it certainly does the performances. Every actor here sounds like they're reciting monologues to one another from their favourite badly translated versions of classic European novels (let's make it Italian, out of respect for Delillo's heritage), often at the same time, and all with the same robotic delivery.   

What annoys me most about the film, though, is that throughout its punishingly long runtime, I had this persistent, nagging feeling that there was a great film lying just beneath the surface, just dying to get out. With every badly timed joke, with every arbitrary twist, with every vague barb at the film’s many only-just-obscured targets, there was this constant, almost unconscious thought that with just a slight shift, every one of these many, many failures could become their polar opposite. That by pitching everything just five degrees to the left and with just a bit more focus, we could have had a gloriously funny, wildly entertaining, cutting, profoundly human, gloriously absurdist social satire. Instead, we got this.

It's bad enough that the film, in a word, sucks, but it became almost unbearable with the constant realisation that it was always only just out of reach of greatness. This one's just for the DeLillo and/or Baumbach fans – and even then, only for the morbidly curious among them.

Where to watch: Netflix

Cast: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle

Our rating: 1/5 Stars


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