Monday, November 28, 2022

'White Noise' never seems to find its footing

   In adapting Don DeLillo's 1985 novel, White Noise, for the screen, director Noah Baumbach has made a wildly uneven movie that soars and sinks until it arrives at a brilliant end-credit musical number set to LCD Soundsystem's New Body Rhumba. 
      Some of White Noise struck me as abrasively funny, although it's easy to make fun of academic pretension, one of the movie's early preoccupations. Otherwise, Baumbach sends his movie here, there, and everywhere, spewing cleverness but never finding its footing. 
      Looking as if he hasn't made a trip to the gym in months, a pot-bellied Adam Driver plays Jack Gladney, a college professor specializing in Hitler studies, a field he pioneered. 
    Jack's wife Babette (Greta Gerwig)  works with the elderly and is addicted to pills known as Dylar. (What these pills do remains a mystery until near the movie’s end.)
   A fourth marriage for both Jack and Babette, the couple lives in a college town with the kids from their combined households, four in all.
   Don Cheadle turns up as Murray, one of Jack's colleagues, a professor who lectures on pop culture. Murray hopes to do for Elvis what Jack has done for Hitler, turn the King into an academic rage.
   At one point, Jack and Murray give dueling lectures that Jack treats as a clash of egos and which Baumbach deftly stages with each professor trying to out-dramatize the other.
    Baumbach soon introduces a disaster-movie element that’s foreshowed by an early-picture lecture Murray gives on the deeper meaning of car crashes in movies.
     When a truck and a train collide, the little college town that Jack and Babette call home is threatened by an "airborne toxic event." Toxic clouds pollute the air.
     Fearing contamination and heeding an evacuation order, the family piles into a station wagon and flees the advancing cloud. The movie suddenly becomes a cockeyed disaster pic full of roads glutted with traffic, impromptu shelters, and escalating fear.
    Baumbach keeps many of DeLillo's ironic jokes. Jack, for example, bills himself as an expert on Hitler but he doesn't speak German. Supermarkets become meccas of personal fulfillment. Consumerism attains the status of a new religion.
     All of this in the service of obliterating any consciousness of mortality in a culture that can't bear to face the prospect of death, a fear that haunts both Jack and Babette.
     A late picture development brings Jack face-to-face with unpleasant truths, including a confession of infidelity by Babette that leads to ... oh well ... it doesn't exactly matter because it feels as if Baumbach has deposited us in another movie, one in which Jack tries to unravel the mysteries of Dylar.
   Baumbach sets the story in the 1980s, just as DeLillo did. That means White Noise can feel dated. Amusing in spurts and obviously ambitious, White Noise never becomes a self-sufficient romp through a fractured culture.
    Instead, Baumbach's White Noise feels like a collection of the accumulated absurdities that once fired DeLillo’s imagination in a novel that many considered unfilmable. Pehraps they were right. Some things should be left on the page.

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