Venice Review White Noise : Noah Baumbach Teams With Adam Driver And Greta Gerwig In Wickedly Smart Comedy For Dark Times

Don DeLillo’s post modernist 1985 novel, White Noise has been long desired by filmmakers trying to crack the nut of how to bring the complex dark comedy to the screen. Barry Levinson made an attempt that didn’t come to fruition in 2004. Director Michael Almereyda was announced in 2016, also going nowhere. James L. Brooks’ Gracie Films had it optioned at one point. But it seems entirely appropriate that it should finally land into the hands of Noah Baumbach, a self-professed mega fan of the book he read first in college in the late 80’s  and saw it as a very satiric yet accurate account of the sad state of affairs of the world at that time. However by 2021 when he got around to adapting and directing the first of his own films he didn’t write as an original screenplay, the multiple themes running though the book not only were still relevant, they seem more of this time then the 37 years since the book’s publication.

Although it might be nearly impossible to perfectly transfer the tricky tone and themes running rampant in this eccentric story of a college professor of Hitler Studies at a small midwestern college and the apocalyptic thoughts running through his head, not to mention those of his offbeat family, Baumbach, keeping the setting in the 80’s, clearly gets it. And as each day in these current bizarre times passes by, it hovers a bit too close for comfort as a prophetic view of the future that is sadly, now in many ways in a world thown to the mat by pandemics, war, climate change, TMI and misinformation – you name it.  Consumerism is out of control, media intrusion is everywhere, conspiracy mongerers are gaining traction, academics run amok, ecological disaster is all around us, violence is an answer to get your rocks off, addictions are inevitable, and a family unit struggles to stay together against all odds. Can genuine happiness only be found, in of all places, the Supermarket? Well you get the idea of what is in store here.

Adam Driver, in his fifth collaboration with Baumbach and first since their Oscar nominated work on 2019’s Marriage Story, plays Professor Jack Gladney, a Hitler Studies professor with issues, particularly revolving around constant thoughts and fears of death. He is now on his fourth wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig hidden under a unique 80’s hairstyle choice), and their blended family from all those previous unions including precocious 14 year old son of Jack named Heinrich (Sam Nivola), Half sister Denise (Raffey Cassidy), and another sister from another of Jack’s marriages, Steffie (May Nivola). The kids are obsessed with plane crashes and accidents of any kind, constantly glued to TV news for the next one. Various other characters are introduced, notably fellow college colleague and friend Murray (Don Cheadle) who waxes poetic on all sorts of things while strolling with Jack though the supermarket, a frequent hang from the anxieties of life. One major setpiece in the film finds Murray lecturing his students on the cosmic connection between Elvis Presley and his mother Gladys, only to have the lesson hijacked by Jack who changes the subject as it were to all things Hitler.  Meanwhile the family’s true apocalyptic vibe comes true when  a chemical spill is released in the town forming toxic clouds that force the residents, and Jack’s family to evacuate and communally quarantine. Unfortunately Jack may have possibly been fatally exposed and is told he could well pass away at any unspecified time, though a cure of sorts could be found in 15 years if he makes it that far. Driver is at his droll best delivering lines like, “I am tentatively scheduled to die”.

As for Baba, as she is known, she becomes addicted to a drug Jack had tried to get on the Black Market called Dylar that among other things apparently is a fast fix for those living under the fear of death. She will do anything to keep the supply coming, even prostituting herself with the mysterious Mr. Gray (an over the top Lars Eidenger), much to Jack’s horror, and even though the side effects are not pretty for Baba who has a tough time to say the least.  It all gets quite complicated from there as you might imagine, a family living under a dark cloud – literally and figuratively, trying to somehow come out on the other side of insanity. This is a story that makes so much more sense in the ever-devolving America we live in now, a science fiction of sorts that has almost become a documentary for a world that can’t tell the truth from the lies. Baumbach’s solution:  you just have to laugh your way through it and hold on to the dream, and DeLillo’s prose offers him for the first time someone else’s vision for his own brand of smart, inspired humor. This is Baumbach unleashed, and actually unexpected.

As in many movies of this type it sometimes goes too far, threatening to come crashing down at any minute, but Baumbach is too smart a filmmaker to let that happen for long, and he is blessed to have a sensational cast led by Driver who finds yet another role well-suited to his talents (running the gamut and even doing his best Chevy Chase from the Vacation movies in one frantic sequence). The irresistible Gerwig also plays it for all it’s worth. Among the perfectly chosen kids, Sam Nivola as Heinrich is a hoot in a role that would have fit Baumbach’s The Squid And The Whale star Jesse Eisenberg like a glove at one time. Don Cheadle rolls in and out and steals every scene he is in. Andre Benjamin, Jodie Turner-Smith and others also come in and out. The great German actress Barbara Sukowa has a choice cameo near the end that is also well worth waiting for.

Lest you think all of this depressing state-of-mind might be too much of a bummer, Baumbach leaves us with a rousing dance number set to a bouncy 80’s style new song with overtones of death from LCD Soundsystem, as the cast gets down in an immaculately appointed and gorgeously stocked supermarket. It only seems right.

Premiering as the Opening  film today at the Venice Film Festival, it will also be the opener later in September for the New York Film Festival. Following the success of Marriage Story, this represents the first in Baumbach’s new production deal with Netflix which will stream the film beginning December 30. It will have a month long run in theatres before that starting on November 25th. Producers are Baumbach, David Heyman, and Uri Singer.

 

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