“All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots.” we are told early on in Noah Baumbach’s new film White Noise. Not since Alvy Singer bought Annie Hall all those books about death has there been such a funny and richly intelligent investigation of the particularly American anxiety about death. Not that it is particularly American at all, but there are flavours – nation cuisines – even to neuroses and Baumbach gives us a supermarket full.
The ur-novel of American postmodernism, Don DeLillo’s 1985 book of the same name has often been cited as unfilmable: with its ultra-clever, unashamedly intellectual prose carved in machine-tooled sentences. Baumbach’s inspired solution is to make a Steven Spielberg movie, but Spielberg on Ritalin. Adam Driver plays Jack Gladney, a professor in Hitler Studies at Hilltop University. He’s married to Babette (Greta Gerwig) and lives with his typically atypical family, a brood of smart-talking children from present and previous marriages. They live in the kind of chaotic household Richard Dreyfuss used to build model mountains in, stuffed with overlapping dialogue and always-on TV sets.
Babette teaches seniors fitness, worries about dying and is sneaking pills. Meanwhile, at work, friend and colleague Murray (played with effortless glassy-eyed charm by Don Cheadle) enrolls Jack in a bid to promote Elvis studies: “Elvis is my Hitler” is just one of the beauties in a constantly sparking script of all killer, no filler. Their boring prosperity and happiness is disrupted by ‘an airborne toxic event’, the alarming consequences of which lead to an evacuation and Jack having to face up to death: not as a psychological or cultural concept but as a literal reality.
Instead of avoiding cliche, DeLillo’s writing converts them into a micro-language of its own. And so it is here. Everyone speaks in cliches: a doctor talks of tests being run on “gleaming machines”; Babette speaks of “Man’s jealous rage’” The professors at Jack’s college spout interlocking monologues of words which dance between intellectual acuity, wit and twaddle. But White Noise escapes the quicksand of wordiness that so many literary adaptations drown in by using his cinematic language to speak in cliche as well.
When escaping the toxic event, every single fleeing family reverses their station wagons into the trash cans as if it is a necessary part of their escape. Lol Crawley’s cinematography soaks up the flashing lights of emergency vehicles reflected onto rain-drenched cars. Danny Elfman’s score pastiches all the usual beats from thriller to epic to romantic resolution via gunfire: this is an American neurosis after all, so one of the flavours is cordite. This being postmodernism, the characters are aware of the narrative they’re in: one of the children goes as far as to narrate a traffic jam with a paragraph from the novel.
This could be seen as a smug, empty exercise in satirical excoriation – and as a smug, empty exercise in satirical excoriation, it’d be one of the best – but there is a genuine heart to the film, as well as intellect. Cheadle, Gerwig and Driver are all superb, while Sam Nivola and Raffey Cassidy give their smart-mouth, role reversal kids an impossible likeability. Baumbach understands that the key to postmodernist comedy is in its use of Romantic Irony: the essential ‘kidding, not kidding-ness’ that can be found in Philip Larkin’s poetry and Thomas Pynchon’s prose.
The airborne toxic event could well be 9/11 or Covid. It morphs language, disrupts our lives, might even kill us. Baumbach’s comedy doesn’t diminish his characters nor the seriousness of their concerns. Just because they speak in cliches and find happiness in supermarkets doesn’t make them less than us: it makes them just like us. The overriding and fitting irony is that Netflix – the supermarket of cinema – is going to be the final home of this film which, despite its 1980s setting, is one of the best contemporary political comedies of recent years.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty