A train crash. A toxic cloud. A fear of death. Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don Delilo’s “unadaptable” novel captures the terrifying uncertainties that result from all three of these in a, for lack of a better word, absolutely batsh*t way. But its level of absurdity makes White Noise one of the best movies of the year, albeit also the hardest one to review.
Is there a plot to White Noise? Sort of. There's a quirky comedy about a Hitler Studies professor and his family. Then, there’s a disaster movie. Then, there’s some sort of existential crisis/romance/murder plot? It makes no sense. But it doesn’t have to. Where White Noise succeeds is in its vibes and emotions. You’ve heard of the phrase “No thoughts, just vibes.” Well, White Noise decides to go a step beyond that and becomes the personification of “All thoughts, all vibes”. It’s a clunky, hot mess… but somehow it works. The world it takes place in doesn’t make sense, so the film doesn’t have to. There are three very distinctive parts to this film that don’t make sense together. In most films, that would be such a glaring flaw that it tarnishes most of their good qualities. It doesn’t here. In the strangest way, it actually makes this movie better.
Noah Baumbach knows this, and thus his directorial vision thrives with its absurdity. White Noise is his least “Noah Baumbach” film, but it still feels like his passion project. After all, there clearly is so much love put into making this film what it is. This even extends to the casting, as Baumbach casts longtime collaborator Adam Driver and his own wife Greta Gerwig in the lead roles. The dialogue is written with so much respect to the source material, and often directly utilizes exact quotes from it. But most of all, Baumbach has just directed a stunning movie, with its production design being the clear highlight. It has this idyllic 1980s vibe with a nightmare twist. There’s color found within the death. For instance, when Driver talks about Hitler and mass genocide, the background is filled with rainbows and funky shapes. The supermarket (a commonly featured location) is overstimulating in its color and design. There’s so much to it and it’s pure beauty. Maximalism isn’t an aesthetic commonly found within recent films, yet White Noise revels in it. Everything is so amazingly extra, down to Gerwig’s hair (which Don Cheadle aptly describes as “important”).
As expected with a Baumbach flick, the performances are next level. Driver proves once again that he is incredible at playing fathers as Jack Gladney, and brings so much warmth to this character. He’s a loving father and husband, but also a deeply passionate professor. There’s one scene in particular where he and Gerwig have a conversation about their secrets that’s one of the film’s best. The emotions there are painfully raw, and similarly to Marriage Story, Baumbach is able to fool the audience into not knowing who to root for. Speaking of Gerwig, she simply gives the best supporting actress performance of the year. There have been some complaints of her seeming out of place or confused, but I find that said complaints are quite literally missing the entire point of her character. Babette is forgetful and pained about it. She doesn’t quite know what’s going on, and that worries her. She’s also the newfound step-mother to a few of the children, and portrays those awkward dynamics so well. The kids are also tremendous. They don’t do a ton, but all of them (Raffey Cassady, Sam Nivola, May Nivola) are wonderful in their roles. They have that childlike sass to them, and their chemistry with their parents felt authentic. Don Cheadle is also unbelievably hilarious despite having a small role.
There are some movies where we don’t quite understand why we love them so much, but we still strongly do anyways. While there are millions of reasons to love White Noise, the truth is not all of them make sense. However, White Noise shines as a perfect example of a massive director taking a swing at something new and succeeding and a perfect example of the beauty of maximalism. It is certainly not for everyone, but this niche film will have its passionate fans obsessed.