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Release Date: 12/30/22
[Cinemas / Netflix]
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Horror

Studio: Netflix

"Dramatizes a contemporary American family's attempts to deal with the mundane conflicts of everyday life while grappling with the universal mysteries of love, death, and the possibility of happiness in an uncertain world." 


After a very solid film, Marriage Story in 2019, writer and director Noah Baumbach decided to go off kilter with White Noise. The film opens with a montage of car crashes from movies that folks obsessed with film will enjoy trying to identify. Murray (Don Cheadle) is teaching a university class on film and performs a monologue about how car crashes are the epitome of everything America stands for. It’s an intriguing opening but we then shift to the home of a typical suburban family in the 1970’s. Jack (Adam Driver) is a professor at the same university as Murray. His wife Babbette (Greta Gerwig) complete with big, curly, frizzy blonde hair is a bit of an oddball but then again the whole family kind of is. They’ve got a handful of kids, some from different marriages but their blended family works.


That is, until a train crash carrying a dangerous chemical crashes and unleashes toxins into the air. This is the 70’s so most of their news comes from the radio and misinformation runs rampant as they are forced to go to a safety shelter. This half of the movie is ridiculous and you think you’re watching some sort of light-hearted horror movie that is attempting to parallel the COVID pandemic. Then the story abruptly shifts, the massive toxic event is over, and the family is back shopping at the grocery store. The second half of the movie focuses on mysterious pills that Babbette has been hiding and taking called Dylar. No one knows what these pills are, but the kids are worried about her and Jack begins questioning why she’s taking them and their purpose. The backstory of these pills involves Babbette’s fear of death (a recurring theme throughout the movie) and leads Jack to a dirty motel to confront the person who has been supplying her. 


The meandering story has no real connection to the toxic event other than the fear of death that is persistent throughout the movie. There are several problems with White Noise that prevent it from having the assumed desired effect Baumbach had hoped for. The first is the inconsistent tone. At times the movie is hilarious and goofy in a way that is entirely entertaining. Driver and Gerwig have excellent chemistry as they banter back and forth incessantly. But the story as a whole never fully commits to the gag. At times, it attempts to be serious and dramatic and these competing energies clash in a way that prevents cohesion. The white noise reference is definitely a feature at the beginning of the movie. One of the first scenes of the family at home preparing to eat is chaotic with several competing conversations competing for air time. The sound design here is impeccable, as you try in vain to catch bits and pieces of many different conversations. This happens again in a college scene where we catch a few moments of multiple conversations without fully being invested in any of them. The sound design in these moments is incredibly fun and well done and ties back to the title perfectly. But towards the end of the movie, those references are gone entirely. The integration of the fear of death is a theme that runs throughout the length of the movie. You can interpret that in a multitude of ways that should be fun but just winds up being boring. We do get it, everyone is afraid of death and most of us are consuming things that will bring death sooner rather than later (Dylar, junk food, take your pick). And there are some nice moments that attempt to dissect this idea, but again, it never feels fully fleshed out. 


The other oddity that comes up again and again in the first half of the movie involves Murray constantly comparing Elvis to Hitler. There’s an odd scene where Murray and Jack give a lecture that showcases the parallels between the two and their connection to the fear of death, particularly amongst crowds. This is harped on for a long while in the first half of the story and then is dropped completely by the end. It almost felt like Baumbach had a lot of interesting thoughts and instead of developing one or two into something that would add something new to the zeitgeist, he just threw them all together as half-baked ideas into one movie. The acting performances from Driver, Gerwig, and Cheadle deserved a better story because their characters were in fact interesting and compelling and all three fully committed to the roles. If only they had a better script to work with. White Noise unfortunately will stay true to its namesake and remain muffled in the background, especially compared to Baumbach’s other, better work.

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