In White Noise, eccentric college professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) must uproot his family and evacuate when a toxic cloud threatens their home.
If Covid analogies must bombard us over the next few years, let them all be as entertaining as White Noise. Based on Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name, Noah Baumbach’s latest feature is a riot of sound and colour, a technicolour send-up of the post-truth era accidentally written in 1985. Though the lack of focus may frustrate the third act, a wicked sense of humour and a sharp eye for the absurdities of our current predicament keep this post-apocalyptic satire running right to the end of the line.
The Gladney family are an odd bunch. Patriarch Jack is a renowned Hitler Studies professor at the local college. His wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), teaches fitness classes around town and suffers from frequent memory lapses. Their kids, shared between them from their previous marriages (three each), are fiercely intelligent and watch plane crashes on the news as a form of family entertainment. Their dynamic falls between a university seminar and the world’s least organised cult.
For a pack of intelligent cookies, they don’t seem very well-equipped for the end of the world. That’s a problem because when a truck collides with a freight train full of toxic waste, their town is forced to evacuate as an ominous black cloud heads their way. Cue a less-than-happy trip to a local Scout Camp, complete with face masks, isolation procedures and a town full of people unable to go outdoors. One of the symptoms of cloud exposure, Jack’s son Heinrich knowingly announces, is a sense of déjà vu. That’s appropriate because this is all sounding pretty familiar…
From there, the film unfolds with the precisely orchestrated chaos of a clockwork hand grenade. Baumbach’s signature style shines in every frame despite working from someone else’s material for the first time. In a scene-stealing performance as Jack’s King of Rock-obsessed professor-friend, Don Cheadle can say, “Elvis is my Hitler” without a shred of irony, and Gerwig and Driver make a couple just believably odd enough that one can’t help but fall for their endearingly deranged little family.
The whole thing, by the way, is bonkers. If this year’s Everything Everywhere All At Once brought maximalism back to cinemas with a dildo fight-induced slap, White Noise does the same but with, if anything, less nuance. The apparent attempt to satirise almost every aspect of the modern human condition can be overwhelming. The film inevitably stumbles slightly as it changes direction in the third act. By the end, there’s so much going on that it’s challenging to keep a handle on it. It all sounds pretty familiar…
White Noise played at BFI London Film Festival and is released in cinemas on November 25.