White Noise (2022) ☆☆(2/4): A whimsical misfire from Noah Baumbach

Noah Baumbach’s latest film “White Noise”, which is released in South Korean theaters in this week and then will be on Netflix around the end of this month, does not click that well with me. The movie, which is based on the novel of the same name by Don DeLillo, surely tries a lot throughout its 135-minute running time, but the overall result feels rather hollow and superficial on the whole, and this is a major letdown compared to many of Baumbach’s recent acclaimed works including “Marriage Story” (2019).

At the beginning, we are introduced to a college professor named Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and his colorful suburban family. Although things are usually messy in their house, Jack and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) mostly get along well with their four children, and we see how they cheerfully start another usual day in their neighborhood which often looks like a low-key version of Wes Anderson movies (As many of you know, Baumbach worked with Anderson in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004), and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)).

The main focus of Jack’s academic work is the history of Adolf Hitler, though he actually does not know how to speak or write German. I have no idea on how he managed to become a fairly good Hitler expert despite that, but he seems to be pretty respectable enough to be invited to an academic conference, so he tries to get some help from a German guy who is willing to teach the other thing besides German.

At his campus workplace, Jack is surrounded by a bunch of colorful professors who are mostly occupied with each own academic interest. Whenever they gather together for lunch, they surely talk a lot about what they are interested in, but they do not look like really interacting with each other at all, and we just observe the aimless verbal cacophony among them from the distance.

Meanwhile, Jack becomes more concerned about his wife’s mental health. While she is cheerfully vivacious on the surface, it seems that she has been on a certain unknown type of medication, and one of their children urges Jack to delve into this matter more, though both of them still cannot identify what kind of medicine Barbette has been supposedly taking.

Around the end of the first act, the movie becomes a bit more interesting due to a sudden disaster which occurs at a spot not so far from Jack’s neighborhood. As a considerable amount of certain toxic chemical is spread toward the neighborhood, everyone is thrown into panic and worry, and there eventually comes a moment when Jack and his family must evacuate from their neighborhood as soon as possible.

As Jack and his family try to go to a nearby shelter, the movie provides a series of bizarre moments to baffle and confuse you. At one point, Jack and his family see something frightening on the sky along with many others on the road, and the score by Danny Elfman surely swells as much as expected during this weird moment.

While Jack tries to process and understand what is going on just like many others around him and his family, the movie puts us into more confusion and bafflement. Lots of words about the ongoing disaster are hurled around here and there, but none of them gel together well to form something coherent and understandable, and it sometimes looks like all we get is nothing but sound and fury.

After the abrupt end of the second act, the story focuses on the marital problems between Jack and Babette again. While struggling with the fact that he may die sooner or later due to being exposed to that toxic chemical, Jack becomes all the more concerned about his wife, and then there comes a crucial moment as both of them tell all to each other.

We are supposed to be more emotionally involved in their problematic situation, but Baumbach’s screenplay fails to develop them into believable human figures, and we keep observing them and other characters around them from the distance without much care or attention. In the end, the movie arrives at the finale with some good cheer, but that does not mesh that well with the rest of the film, and we are consoled a bit by what is joyfully presented during its end credits, which is its best part in my inconsequential opinion.

The main cast members of the film try to sell their broad characters as much as possible. While Adam Driver, who previously worked with Baumbach in “Marriage Story”, dutifully carries the film to the end, Greta Gerwig is often limited by her uneven character, and Raffey Cassidy, André Benjamin, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bill Camp, and Don Cheadle manage to leave some impression despite their caricature supporting roles.

On the whole, “White Noise” is a disappointing misfire despite the efforts from Baumbach and his cast and crew members, and it only makes me more interested in reading DeLillo’s novel, which, as far as I heard from others, has been regarded as “unfilmable” since it came out in 1985. I could somehow sense how the story and characters may work on pages, but, sadly, they do not work at all on the screen, and maybe Baumbach deserves some pat on his back for trying something quite impossible from the beginning.

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