It seems as though every year Netflix puts out a film that makes one wonder how it was greenlit into production.
Whether it’s an exorbitant budget for a languishing Martin Scorsese epic like The Irishman or an overly sarcastic, nihilistic dramedy like Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, the streaming service can’t quite find its footing for an award season contender to draw large audiences with 2022 being no exception.
Noah Baumbach, whose previous effort Marriage Story saw Laura Dern win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, returns to Netflix with an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s avantgarde 1985 novel, the first feature the director has made without telling a completely original story.
White Noise is an eclectic, strange, befuddling black dramedy of a feature released in select theaters in early December before hitting the streaming service Dec. 30. The film stars Internet darlings Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig as a couple living in an undisclosed Midwestern town whose lives are uprooted by a chemical spill.
Baumbach breaks his film into three parts, much like the novel it draws inspiration from, with each section only loosely connected through minor characterization and general themes.
White Noise is absolutely mystifying for those unfamiliar with the source material and wildly inconsistent in tone. In many ways, it’s like a train wreck that bystanders see coming and can’t look away from, which Baumbach almost revels in with the amount of time he spends on car crashes and people’s voyeuristic nature.
At the core of the film, Driver as a college professor in Hitler studies is quirky in physicality and dress, but ironically the most normal character in the entire film. The cadence with which his Jack pontificates is in keeping with Baumbach’s idiosyncratic dialogue and it’s clear that Driver relishes each opportunity to emote in a spiritualistic way.
Conversely, Gerwig – who audiences see significantly less of in the film – is more subdued as White Noise plays out with the most memorable part of her performance being a wacky frizzled 80s haircut and at times, a riff on a Beverly D’Angelo-esque character from National Lampoon’s Vacation.
The family dynamic doesn’t really evolve much over the two-hour feature, though each younger performer is given some opportunity to shine and moments between Driver and Raffey Cassidy’s eldest daughter character Denise over an unknown prescription are the most entertaining elements of a screenplay that’s all over the map.
From a production standpoint, White Noise does an exceptional job of creating a hyper-realistic recreation of 1980s middle America with bombastic costuming, over-teased hair and makeup and a fully transformed, inexplicably intricate supermarket viewers could spend hours in actually shopping in and being completely transported back in time.
There’s an overwhelming brightness to White Noise visually that harkens back to classic John Hughes comedic style and sets an expectation for audiences that the outrageousness of Baumbach’s adaptation of the avantgarde source novel just cannot meet. Much like the Gladneys’ home and family live, the film is stuffed full with detail and nuance to the point where there’s no room for audiences to breathe given the strangeness and complexity of the narrative.
Given Baumbach’s track record with Marriage Story and Netflix not having a true contender this awards season, it’s possible that White Noise could slip into the nomination mix for accolades like adapted screenplay or production design, but the relative inaccessibility could leave it on the outside looking in.
After an underwhelming theatrical performance, Baumbach’s film could find much more friendly waters on the streaming service where audiences can process the intricacies in chunks without having to digest the entire feature in one sitting. As it is, White Noise may prove to be too avantgarde and niche for the average moviegoer regardless of the setting.