Movie Review of White Noise with Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Movie Review of White Noise with Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig

White Noise's mix of surrealism and sincerity shouldn't work—but absolutely does.

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Noah Baumbach's White Noise shouldn't work. Like, at all. I'm not speaking now in terms of its effectiveness as an adaptation of Don DeLillo's National Book Award-winning 1985 novel, because I can't; the question of whether this movie does justice to a famously "unfilmable" novel will have to be left to those who have actually read it. But in terms of being effective as a cinematic narrative, it mixes components that should be absolutely volatile when placed in the same container: caustic, absurdist social satire, and utterly sincere emotionalism. You can snort derisively at the way characters are behaving, or you can feel deeply for them, but you should not be able to do both.

And yet, here we are: White Noise is a movie unicorn. It's weirdly hilarious and hilariously weird, while poking at the things that can make relationships collapse. Played with straight-faced determination by Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, the protagonists of White Noise made me laugh out loud and hope against hope that they could find happiness.

All of this takes place circa 1984, in an unnamed midwestern town that's home to the College on the Hill. Among the faculty members is Jack Gladney (Driver), who teaches a celebrated course in "Hitler studies," while sharing his home life with wife Babette (Gerwig) and the blended family made up of their children from various previous marriages. All might seem mostly well for them, but various clouds hang over them—figuratively, in the case of their mutual expressed fear of death, and literally, in the case of a potentially toxic chemical plume that spreads over their town after a railroad accident.

Baumbach sets his tone quickly with the rat-a-tat, often overlapping dialogue of the Gladney family on a hectic morning; it's the perfect way to establish the barely-controlled chaos of normal family life, plus a hyper-verbosity that lifts a lot of the crazy situations. But this might also rank as Baumbach's finest work yet as a visual filmmaker. He finds the perfect pivot point between the first and second acts of White Noise with a sequence that juxtaposes one of Gladney's crowd-pleasing lectures with the impending doom of the railroad accident. There's even an oddly quiet intensity to a scene involving Jack filling up the family car with gas, and bit where that same car winds up in a river that could have turned into frantic slapstick, but instead conveys a parent doing his best to hold things together for his family under stress.

It won't be surprising, though, if White Noise is more memorable for its surreal jokes than for the cinematic style with which Baumbach surrounds them. There's a running gag involving Jack's insecurity over being a "Hitler studies" scholar despite being unable to speak German, and plenty of other effective skewering of academia, including Jack's eager-to-advance colleague (Don Cheadle). In one of the more inspired bits of parody targeting institutional incompetence, the response team to the toxic disaster opts to use this actual disaster as a simulation to test their readiness for the kind of actual disaster they're dealing with. Punch lines should never be ruined, but White Noise is filled with them, generally cocked at a 45-degree angle from reality.

So how does that aforementioned material feed into a kind of heartbreakingly wonderful relationship drama? That's what evolves in the film's third act, centered around the mystery over what kind of medication Babette is surreptitiously taking. And that mystery involves the crises, both real and imagined, that can tear at a marriage, especially when we know from the outset that Jack and Babette have both previously been in marriages that did not work out. White Noise is in some small part about a quest for easy answers to the existential terrors of modern life—as one bit of dialogue puts it, that we are "fragile creatures surrounded by hostile facts." Baumbach's movie slips pitch-black comedy into those hostile facts, while finding beauty in the striving of fragile creatures, who want to count on one another so much that it seems more terrifying to be alone than to be dead.

If that collision of tones doesn't work for some folks, I totally get it. Really, it shouldn't work. At all. Except that it does.