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USA 2022
Directed by
Noah Baumbach
135 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

White Noise

If Paul Thomas Anderson and his near namesake Wes Anderson co-directed a film scripted by David Mamet with music by David Byrne it would make a nice companion piece for Noah Baumbach’s latest film. Which is not to suggest that the latter is in anyway derivative but rather that Baumbach, well known for his wryly amusing and insightful portraits of the dysfunctional middle American family in the spirit of his debut The Squid and the Whale (2005), whilst still in similar territory, has enlarged his canvas and broadened his palette considerably.

No doubt much of this is due to the fact that this is the first time that Baumbach is not directing from his original script but his adaptation of the 1985 award-winning novel ‘White Noise’ by Tom DeLillo. Although it has been charcterised as “unfilmable” one feels that Baumbach has brought his raw material to a fine pitch deftly interweaving existential dread through his portrait of middle class mundanity.

The first section of the film "Waves and Radiation" (which speaks to the film’s title although not in any literal way) establishes the hectic home life of Jack (Adam Driver, his best work to date) and Babette Gladney (Greta Gerwig,somewhat out of her depth) both on their fourth marriages and bringing up a gaggle of teen and pre-teen children in a cosy East Coast regional college town. It also introduces us to an amusing running satire of lower rung liberal arts academia. Jack teaches a popular course on Hitler which is the envy of his colleagues, particularly Murray Jay Siskind (a deadpan Don Cheadle) who is wanting to give Elvis the same cachet – a connection which leads us into one of the best scenes in the film, a riffing joint lecture between Murray and Jack contrasting the cultural iconicity of Hitler and Presley. We are also introduced to what will become the main concern of the film, Jack and Babette’s fear of death.

This leads us to the film’s centerpiece "The Airborne Toxic Event" concerning a nearby chemical spill which we can hardly avoid seeing a resemblance with the Covid-19 pandemic before taking us into part three "Dylarama" in which Jack discovers that Babette has been cheating on him with in order to gain access to Dylar, an experimental treatment for the fear of death. This is a black comedy of errors which culminates in a singing and dancing production number set in warehouse-like supermarket, a kind of contemporary cathedral of consumerist conformity where Jack and his family, indeed us all can await death in peace. This precis hardly does justice to Baumbach’s script which is itself an abridgement of DeLillo’s novel, sales of which should be strong after the release of Baumbach’s version.

White Noise is also a technically impressive film with Lol Crawley’s cinematography and Jess Gonchor's production design get the look of the film just right, at times bordering on the hyper-realistic (The A&P store in which the film closes is a real life low-cost supermarket chain that has been a staple of American suburban life since such a thing existed. It closed down in 2105). In a typically clever reference "The Simpsons" veteran Danny Elfman provides the score.  

Surprisingly, the critical reception in the US for White Noise has been rather cool but it is a film that will improve with age.




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