Ten years ago today, the Telluride Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Frances Ha, the first full flourishing of the creative partnership between Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig that began with Greenberg (2010) and will carry on next year with Barbie.White Noise, Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, opened Venice on Wednesday and will head to New York at the end of the month before landing on Netflix at the end of the year. So far, British critics—such as the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, and Little White Lies’ Hannah Strong—are responding to its critique of Reagan-era consumerism enthusiastically, while American critics parcel out qualified praise.
Gerwig and Adam Driver star as Babette and Jack Gladney, a couple raising their six-year-old son and three other children they’ve brought to the household from previous marriages. Jack has founded the department of Hitler Studies at a liberal arts college in a modest midwestern town, and Driver, “sporting a gut, a bohemian geek haircut, and a terrible leather jacket,” observes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “makes Jack a study in a certain kind of late-twentieth-century man who thinks of himself as a crusader for freedom and truth but is, in fact, a complacent intellectual pasha of entitlement.”
At the Film Stage, David Katz finds Babette to be “a kind of ur-Gerwig: a heightened, focused rendering of her typical speaking tenor and comic timing. With pitch-perfect ’80s grooming—a blonde forest of curls evoking Michelle Pfeiffer and Meg Ryan from that era—the manner in which she delivers abstract disquisitions on the likes of sex, fulfillment, and mental distraction, temporarily turns White Noise into a ‘Gerwig’ movie of the early 2010s.”
Both the novel and the film are divided into three parts, and it’s Don Cheadle as Professor Murray Sisskind who opens White Noise with a lecture on the “secular optimism and self-celebration” of car crashes in Hollywood movies. In the second part, a chemical spill sets off an Airborne Toxic Event, sending the townspeople fleeing in their cars and exacerbating Jack and Babette’s already-acute fears of death.
Here, White Noise “resembles an early Steven Spielberg film having a nervous breakdown,” writes Robbie Collin. “Perhaps after the United States’ hapless response to Covid, Baumbach wanted to rewind to the point at which the rot set in, and reveal wholesome middle America as a petri dish of neuroses and hypocrisies. It’s combative stuff, and not all of it works: the third, frostier, more intimate section, crammed with chewy philosophical monologues, doesn’t quite align with Baumbach’s dry screwball sensibilities.”
For the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, too, “the film overall becomes steadily less involving—and more grating in its quirks—as it explores both the ecological and emotional fallout of the chemical spill.” Overall, the “feeling remains that Baumbach is more in command with character-driven material than with this kind of accelerated absurdist plotting, which works to the extent it does in part thanks to Danny Elfman’s dark funhouse score, an exuberant return to vintage form.”
Baumbach “recognizes that spectacle has evolved since 1985,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, “but one of the strengths of his White Noise is that he recognizes how little has changed about its role in society. Not only does this adaptation refuse to update DeLillo’s story—the film’s sublime costumes, sets, and lighting taking softly fetishistic pleasure in every teal windbreaker, halogen lamp, and noir-tinged sheet of Paris, Texas-inspired neon green—it seeks to return the text to a time before it was diffused by all of the fiction it predicted.”
White Noise “amplifies not merely the book’s richness as a period piece which speaks of the trendy zeitgeistiness of postmodernism on the American campus, but how prescient it is about the fears of the present day,” writes Peter Bradshaw, and for Hannah Strong, this is “one of the better examples of ‘pandemic art’ to emerge from this perilous time in history.” But for Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, the film, “clearly in love with the book exactly as it was written, turns what was once a lacerating work of acutely relevant satire into a peculiarly anachronistic act of untroublesome, absurdist escapism.”
Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson senses that “there is something impenetrable about DeLillo’s work that Baumbach can’t quite crack . . . We don’t feel the closeness and ardor that gave Marriage Story such prickly life, that gave The Squid and the Whale its acidic fizz, that gave such delicate shape to Frances Ha.” TheWrap’s Robert Abele nevertheless finds that Baumbach “enjoyably evokes era-iconic films and filmmakers, as if he were cheekily embracing DeLillo’s exploration of facades by suggesting how other directors might have realized White Noise: Spielbergian domesticity, Altmanesque dialogue overlap, Cronenberg menace, Zucker/Abraham/Zucker inanity, and De Palma frenzy all get their due.”
We’ll soon see just how elastic DeLillo’s bibliography may be. White Noise producer Uri Singer has picked up the rights to Underworld (1997) for Ted Melfi (Hidden Figures) to write and direct; to The Silence (2020) for playwright, screenwriter, and director Jez Butterworth to adapt; and just this week, to DeLillo’s first novel, Americana (1971), which Singer describes as “American Psycho meets Marriage Story.”
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