‘White Noise’ – Review (NYFF)

Noah Baumbach’s latest feature tackles mortality in a bizarre yet human way, featuring fantastic performances led by Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig and a multi-genre screenplay.

Death is a peculiar concept. It is something that we all will experience, yet it is something that humans know little to nothing about. Yes, we know that the body stops working for one reason or another. The brain will stop firing neurons, the lungs will stop respiration, and the heart will stop beating. But besides the physical truth about dying, humanity doesn’t know what happens during or after this process. It’s perhaps the biggest mystery of existence. We all know that we will one day go through this process; we just don’t know when or how. It’s a peculiar concept. We know what it is, yet we also know nothing about it. And that mystery can quickly evolve into fear.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach challenges this universal frustration or fascination or obsession in his latest film White Noise, his first ever adaption (from the 1985 novel of the same name by Don DeLillo). The book, which centers on the Gladney family, has earned the reputation of being ‘unadaptable.’  But Baumbach manages to merge his individual writing style with the source material, which results in his most ambitious film to date.

Much like the theme of the film, the Gladney family is peculiar. Jack (Adam Driver) is a professor of Hitler Studies at The-College-On-The-Hill. His wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) teaches senior citizens at a church and is experiencing memory loss. Both are on their fourth marriage, but it seems like the family of five has mixed perfectly. Kids Denise (Raffey Cassidy), Heinrich (Sam Nivola), and Steffie (May Nivola) perfectly match Jack and Babette’s quirkiness. They’re interested in academics, the truth, and absurdity. The children seem to be on equal levels to their parents. They all have something to say and are never afraid to voice their opinion (it just might take repeating for them to be fully heard). But once an airborne toxic event forces the family to evacuate, they must face the concept of death head on.

White Noise is composed of three acts, and each act is distinctly different from the last. So much so that the notion that one might find them disconnecting is valid. The first act allows the audience to fully live in the Gladneys’ world, which is oddly similar to ours, yet not quite the same. Everything is over-saturated, which gives Baumbach and the rest of the creative team liberty to display their craft. The production design by Jess Gonchor is full of bright primary colors, and Danny Elfman’s score heightens every moment. But all of these crafts (even the overlapping, wordy play-like dialogue) perfectly demonstrate how humanity attempts to distract ourselves from our impending doom. After all, the way one deals with fear is denial, and the way one deals with denial is a distraction. It is all just stimuli to keep us preoccupied. The second act is more similar to a Hollywood blockbuster disaster movie, and the third is a character drama.

With a narrative and screenplay so erratic as White Noise, much of the believability falls onto its actors, and all are wonderful in their respective roles. The film is full of comedic moments, and both Driver and Gerwig are phenomenal together as the film’s leaders. They are as fantastic a comedic duo as they are a dramatic one. Gerwig, in an amazing wig, has a sensational third act where she gets to showcase the toll of being so close to death. The screenplay of What Noise gives a tall order to the actors at hand; they must make the absurdity believable, allow the audience to laugh, but also relay how terrifying death can be. The script is consonantly shifting genres and tones, and the actors shine in every aspect. It is one of the best ensembles of the year.

There is a lot going on in White Noise that an audience member can take from, which is one of the positive elements of the film. Humanity’s obsession with our mortality, the ways we distract ourselves from it (be it consumerism, everyday life activities, worshiping other individuals or notions, trying to figure out solutions to concepts we know nothing about), how quickly humanity can fall apart, and how we deal when facing death without any of those distractions. Thankfully, Baumbach embraces the messiness of a concept so large and unknown, and fully embracing the concept so proudly is why the film works. It shouldn’t work, but it does. That is the magic of Noah Baumbach.

Grade: B

Oscar Prospects:
Likely: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score, Best Original Song
Should be Considered: Best Supporting Actress, Best Production Design

Release Date: November 25th, 2022 in select theaters; December 30th (Netflix)
Where to Watch: Select theaters; Netflix

Lauren LaMagna
she/her @laurenlamango
Lives in New York and was raised on science-fiction. Nicole Kidman once said her hair was pretty.
Favorite Director: James Cameron
Sign: Aquarius

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