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Noah Baumbach's 'White Noise' adaptation is brave, even if not entirely successful

Greta Gerwig, May Nivola, Adam Driver, Samuel Nivola and Raffey Cassidy appear in Noah Baumbach's <em>White Noise. </em>
Wilson Webb
Greta Gerwig, May Nivola, Adam Driver, Samuel Nivola and Raffey Cassidy appear in Noah Baumbach's White Noise.

These are frustrating days for ambitious American filmmakers. Critics and older filmgoers bemoan that our screens offer little more than blockbuster franchises and cheap horror pictures. Yet when directors try to make something different and daring, they usually get thumped if they don't completely succeed.

Take the new Netflix film White Noise, the latest film from Noah Baumbach, best known for movies like The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story. The movie is adapted from Don DeLillo's 1985 novel, a cool, dazzling book shot through with so many shifting ironies that virtually every reviewer has described it as unfilmable.

Well, Baumbach has filmed it, and though I can't call his adaptation a triumph, a lot of the reviews strike me as being ungenerous to a brave attempt. White Noise is bursting with fun things to watch. And though the story takes place in the 1980s, it tackles present day preoccupations: human-caused disaster, media saturation, drug addiction and consumerism.

A deglamorized Adam Driver stars as Jack Gladney, a professor in the popular department of Hitler Studies, a program he invented not because he admires der Führer but because Hitler is a strong brand in the intellectual marketplace.

Jack lives in a cozy college town, along with his slightly dippy fourth wife, Babette — played by Greta Gerwig with big, bouncy curls — and their kids from assorted marriages. Whether the Gladneys are all having breakfast or driving in their station wagon, their scenes crackle with the sometimes inane, sometimes pointed texture of family crosstalk.

Their story unfolds in three very different chapters, all tinged with satire. The first part lays out the Gladney's life. In the second, disaster-film chapter, a calamitous train wreck menaces their town with a so-called "airborne toxic event," whose foreboding black cloud forces them to flee to a camp for evacuees. Once that gets sorted out, the noirish third chapter tells the story of Babette's use of a mysterious drug called Dylar and the violence it engenders.

While this may make White Noise sound dauntingly dark, its default tone is actually jaunty, if ironically so. Baumbach creates scenes that recall popular TV shows like The Simpsons andStranger Things, and in Don Cheadle's character, a professor named Murray, you get an upbeat version of a Greek chorus who sounds happy as a clam no matter what he's discussing. In a great scene set in a classroom, Murray talks about the death of Elvis Presley, and, as in an academic battle of the bands, Jack tries to top him with the fall of Hitler.

Although Baumbach has a real gift for domestic realism, he's always been drawn to the audacity of the French New Wave. He loves its formal iconoclasm and juxtaposition of tones, from the lyrical to the intellectual to the silly. He attempts such a tonal collage here, and I regret to say, that his White Noise doesn't hold together as well as DeLillo's.

In fact, watching White Noise reminds me a bit of watching the work of the New Wave's greatest genius, Jean-Luc Godard, who was, as it happens, a huge influence on DeLillo. Godard's movies always tended to shuffle brilliant scenes with sections that leave you weak with boredom. You get the same unevenness here, but Baumbach is less intimidating than Godard or DeLillo, neither of whom ever worried about making the audience happy. Baumbach keeps White Noise on the lighter, less political side of the ledger, as in the joyous supermarket finale that's miles from DeLillo's trademark sense of paranoia and dread.

Laced with good jokes, the movie brims with terrific moments, be it Murray's magnificent riff on Hollywood car crashes — which he sees as an expression of American optimism — or the sly sequence at the evacuee camp that seems to come from a missing movie by Baumbach's friend and collaborator, Wes Anderson.

Early on, Jack and Babette have a talk in which each admits that they hope they die before the other. It's partly funny, partly not. And it underscores White Noise's obsession with death, the fear of dying, and especially the countless ways we fend off that fear — by turning catastrophes into media spectacles, by reducing the genocidal Hitler to a kind of pop icon, by smoothing ourselves out with dodgy drugs and by pretending that the disasters we see on TV could never hit us. And, if all else fails, the movie assures us, we can always go shopping.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.