Review: ‘White Noise’ is a tonally-confused misfire starring Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'White Noise'

Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel “White Noise” has long been deemed “unfilmable.” Now we know why — Noah Baumbach’s adaptation is a tonally-confused misfire streaming on Netflix.

Set in 1984, Ohio, the film follows Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a Jewish college professor of Hitler studies. He lives with his fourth wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their blended family of four kids, two from Jack’s previous marriages (Heinrich and Steffie), one from Babette’s previous marriage (Denise) and one that they conceived together (Wilder).

The family struggles when Babette begins acting strangely, zoning out with a fear of death as she pops pills of the experimental drug Dylar, while Jack has visions of a mysterious man trying to kill him. At the same time, a cataclysmic train accident causes a toxic cloud of chemical waste to hover over the town, forcing a mass evacuation of all residents.

Driver reunites with Baumbach after “Marriage Story” (2019), but rather than an explosive jerk, he’s a moping pushover. His best scene comes with Don Cheadle, a professor of Elvis studies, trading a back-and-forth lecture of Hitler vs. Elvis that is more provocative than anything in the film. This scene alone is why Driver earned a Golden Globe nod.

Baumbach also reunites with wife Gerwig, who cowrote and starred in “Frances Ha” (2012) and “Mistress America” (2015) before becoming a director in her own right with “Lady Bird” (2017), “Little Women” (2019) and the upcoming “Barbie” (2023). She might as well be a plastic doll in “White Noise,” zoning out with a blank stare masking unlikable decisions.

Of course, you don’t need every character to be likable. Plenty of great films follow anti-heroes. Baumbach himself has turned selfish, quirky characters into compelling stories plenty of times before, with Laura Linney cheating on Jeff Daniels in “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) or Adam Driver cheating on Scarlett Johansson in “Marriage Story” (2019).

The difference is that those movies picked a lane. One was a coming-of-age dramedy. The other was a divorce drama. The genres were solid. “White Noise” is billed as an absurdist drama comedy, but it’s also randomly a disaster movie like “Independence Day” (1996), a family road comedy like “Vacation” (1983) and a revenge thriller like “Unfaithful” (2002).

Baumbach has four interesting movies inside this script, but they don’t work when crammed together. At one point, I thought the “Airborne Toxic Event” would become a COVID-19 allegory, but the evacuation/quarantine sequence is a tangent that evaporates as the family returns home like nothing happened. Pandemic? What pandemic?

By the time Baumbach reaches a seedy motel in Act Three, I was completely out of the movie, frustrated by its tonal inconsistency. It’s a shame because I’ve had high hopes for “White Noise” since it premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. Don’t bother, folks. Save yourself two hours, pop some Dylar and watch something else on Netflix.

2 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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