White Noise

White Noise
White Noise
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Across three decades and around a dozen directorial efforts, A Noah Baumbach Film is what we now know it to be. Perhaps his low-fi Millennial Manhattanite angst (Frances Ha, Mistress America etc); what about the genial Sundance-approved take on middle-age male malaise (Greenberg, While We’re Young); or the in-depth examination of relationships and family such as Marriage Story or The Meyerowitz Stories. All of these are integrated into Baumbach’s latest film White Noise which is consistent with his usual stylishness and intellectual prowess but seems deeply untypical for A Noah Baumbach Film as we know it: this time it turns to apocalyptic sci-fi blockbuster replete with action set-pieces, piles of dead bodies and a grandiose Hollywood score by Danny Elfman — plus an incongruously goofy dance number at the end. It’s an unusual creature.

Adapted rather faithfully from Don DeLillo’s novel by Baumbach, it takes on new meaning given our current global anxieties in relation to the authors meditation concerning mortality and Cold War paranoia — but it hyperbolizes the ‘80s setting of the book to allow for big hair and pastel colors that look like something out of Miami Vice. The opening scene sets up its weirdly arch sense of humor: Adam Driver plays a rock-star professor of ‘Hitler Studies’ at fictitious ‘College-On-The-Hill’, feeling somewhat awkward that he cannot talk German yet. Together with Babette (Greta Gerwig who appears on screen after a six-year hiatus), they raise an easygoing but disordered family made up of overachieving children from their different marriages. Even there are also some quirky bit-parts for example Don Cheadle, Jodie Turner-Smith and André Benjamin as fellow professors.

It might take some getting used to. Although Baumbach has often dealt with stylized speech, this time the dialogue strikes one as being something different — deliberately unnaturalistic line-readings that could have been lifted from a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. It also has echoes of Wes Anderson (a previous Baumbach collaborator) in terms of its absurdities and flights of fancy so it may take some tuning to its freaked-out wavelength.

It will require holding on tight when the film switches gears from eccentric family drama to bleak dystopia. While it is hard not to read a pandemic allegory into it — lines like, “I want to know how scared I should be!” feel plucked from the spring of 2020 — Baumbach seems keen to summon an overarching fear of mortality in all forms. In particular, Jack and Babette both constantly speak about death and openly hope that the other spouse will die first.

Does everything hold together? Almost. Even if they sometimes feel like they belong in another movie, the action sequences are actually very well done; once you grasp their tone, they are rather amusing. But really only at this point, with a plot about murder conspiracy entering into third act is where things start getting too sprawling and messy. But at least it finishes on a high note with that dance sequence playing LCD Soundsystem’s banger as its soundtrack – satire you can groove to.

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