Like his previous movie, Noah Baumbach’s latest, White Noise, is another marriage story, centred on hotshot Hitler Studies professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and his peppy exercise-instructor wife Babette (Baumbach’s real-life partner Greta Gerwig, sporting a magnificently ’80s blonde perm).
The marriage is the fourth for both; but from minute one, the couple seem to have found their perfect match, lying in bed talking about how neither can bear the thought of living without the other. Each spouse’s fear of non-existence is only surpassed by the idea of carrying on alone.
Those fears become more tangible when a speeding, fuel-filled truck crashes into a train transporting chemicals, creating an ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ in the local area. The pair must then pack up their quirky brood into their station wagon and flee the idyllic suburbs into an unknown potential apocalypse. Adding to the chaos and confusion are the mysterious pills Babette refuses to acknowledge that she’s necking.
Adapted from Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, White Noise essays a self-conscious strangeness that will likely alienate some viewers. Referencing everything from Back to the Future to War of the Worlds, the family’s flight from their home is great fun. But much of the film has more in common with the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, as Baumbach explores the unknowability of life’s meaning in a variety of tones.
White Noise works best if you immediately surrender to its eccentricity – examples of which include: poptastic supermarket dance routines; words taking on the power of objects; and a choreographed Hitler’s-mum-vs Elvis’-mum duel.
Baumbach regulars Driver and Gerwig are less naturalistic here than in their previous work for the writer/director, delivering arch, heavily stylised dialogue that’s rooted in DeLillo’s novel. The supporting cast, meanwhile, includes scene-stealers Jodie Turner-Smith (as a brilliant professor of neurochemistry) and Don Cheadle (an academic determined to become the foremost authority on Elvis).
Undoubtedly Baumbach’s most idiosyncratic work, White Noise flips between tragedy and comedy while still having time for a thrilling mid-point car chase. Some will find that its moments of lamentation land as powerful poetry (which frequently speaks to the enduring agony of the pandemic); others will find them a little annoying. But as a director who made his name on mumblecore indies, there’s often a true joy in seeing Baumbach operate on a much grander scale.
White Noise reaches cinemas on November 25, 2022, before streaming on Netflix from December 30, 2022. For more, check out the best Netflix movies available right now.