Somewhere there exists a film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise, that is as good as the production design in the currently existing film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise. Written for the screen and directed by Noah Baumbach, White Noise is the odd misfire from Baumbach, who usually has a better ear for dialogue than this. Maybe DeLillo’s language, which reads so richly within the echo chambers of our minds, defeated Baumbach, or maybe White Noise simply exists in its best form as a book—which has long been considered unfilmable—but whatever the case, Baumbach is bested. White Noise got the better of him, and the result is a tiresome film full of tiresome characters enacting tiresome dramas amidst truly spectacular production design. If only the rest of the film could equal the exquisitely recreated 1980s supermarket!
As a film, White Noise is cacophonous, a dizzying array of monologues and exchanges and the kind of characters that leap off the page but fall flat on the screen because cinema and novels are inherently different forms. In prose, our imaginations fill in the blanks, making characters distinct to us all in our own way, but cinema commits a character to a specific depiction forever. In the best cases, those characters are indelible because all the elements of cinema come together to create an unforgettable moment, such as Tom Cruise as Lestat in Interview With the Vampire, going outside his comfort zone to deliver a screamingly good and literally screaming performance as a frustrated undead lover who just wants his boyfriend to stop complaining for two goddamned seconds—Anne Rice famously hated Cruise’s interpretation of Lestat because Anne Rice is overrated and didn’t see the potential of Lestat as an unrepentant villain (she tried to redeem him in the books). But sometimes it’s a disaster, such as White Noise, when the characters aren’t even unlikable, they’re just tedious.
Gods! The tedium! DeLillo can get a little high on his horse about how much everything sucks, and Baumbach can get a little too into the weeds of how inherently miserable existence is, and combining these things results in a two hour and fifteen-minute film about a Hitler expert and his curly girl wife finding ways to f-ck up their perfectly fine middle-class life because the world! Just! Ugh! Oh yeah, Adam Driver plays Jack Gladney, a professor of “Hitler studies”, a field Gladney more or less invented. Is this insufferable? Yes! And when I READ White Noise, Jack Gladney took on the shape of my least-favorite professor of all time, so I was glad when all the things ranging from annoying to bad happened to him. But in the film, he looks like everyone’s favorite man-mountain, Adam Driver, just with a fake beer belly. Driver isn’t trying to make Jack sympathetic, but he also can’t make him detestable, so we’re left in the middle ground of a sort-of annoying guy stumbling through a series of increasingly bizarre events.
Driver is joined by Greta Gerwig playing Jack’s death obsessed wife, Babette. It’s not that anyone’s acting is bad. It’s not. Everyone is acting acceptably well. Don Cheadle is doing The Most with The Least, and hey, the end credits feature a dance number in that stunning supermarket set. Can’t wait for that to hit Youtube! And it’s not even that Jack and Babette and their dumb kids and dumb friends are unlikable, that’s not a prerequisite for enjoying a film. (Lestat is unlikeable!) It’s the strain of smug self-satisfaction throughout that compounds over time to render the whole film intolerable. That smugness translates in everything, the dialogue, the performances, the directing, the editing. The only part of the film that isn’t smug is the meticulous production design (courtesy Jess Gonchor, with set decoration by Claire Kaufman). All the vintage cereal boxes! So fun!
Noah Baumbach made White Noise into a film, and yet, White Noise remains unfilmable. Don DeLillo nailed it the first time, as a book, and adapting it leaves us with a lesser-than interpretation drowning in smuggery. I get that Baumbach is going for a specific tone, and yet, it doesn’t work. It’s not unwatchable, and White Noise is hardly the worst film I’ve seen this year, I’m just so baffled at how the merging of Baumbach and DeLillo manages to bring out the worst in each writer. Never has DeLillo seemed dourer, never has Baumbach been more pretentious. But ah! That production design! That immaculately staged, beautifully shot, viscerally rendered 1980s world of processed foods and crass consumerism, we’ll always have that flawless White Noise supermarket.
White Noise will stream on Netflix from December 30, 2022.