Netflix is pulling no punches this winter. A look over their awards season slate thus far has shown many movies taking no prisoners. Each has been flashy and lively works feeling closer to studio fare than one might expect from the streaming company. With his new film White Noise hitting the site this month, Noah Baumbach takes an ambitious swing for the fences with the complicated period piece. Does the filmmaker, who often specializes in smaller and more intimate works, manage to score a home run in this new, larger park? Or (to continue the baseball metaphor) is it an agonizing pop fly? Read on!
White Noise is a bit of a headscratcher. The basic description is that the film follows an American family trying to live life in the 1980s. Throughout the film, they deal with questions of life, love, death, and above all, consumerism. It is the 1980s, after all. Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Jodie Turner-Smith and Raffey Cassidy co-star in the movie. Noah Baumbach directs the film from his script. White Noise is based on Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name.
In all fairness, I have not read DeLillo’s book. However, Baumbach’s final script feels chaotically and almost cartoonishly stylized. There’s lots of big, flowery language about life and death. Unfortunately, it is so over-the-top that any message is largely overshadowed by a final product that brings all the pretension of a first-year student film with a Netflix-sized budget. It’s a risky and inaccessible combination.
Ultimately, White Noise is an actor’s film. This is a talented team of performers led by the always-solid Adam Driver, and it’s easy to see how this work might be fun for the performers. As mentioned, there’s so much weird, wordy dialogue for them to deliver. It’s easy to see this being performed on an underground theater stage. It would be at home there. As the film’s leads, Driver and Greta Gerwig look to be having a lot of fun in this colorful environment. This movie must have been a fun challenge.
It’s almost unfortunate that the fun doesn’t transfer to the audience. They’re too busy figuring out what joke they aren’t in on. There’s a winking humor in the film’s quirkiness. Whether it’s Jack’s (Driver) teaching “Hitler Studies” at the local university (and his shame in not being able to speak German) or Denise’s (Cassidy) pleasantly macabre fascination with Babette’s (Gerwig) pill popping. There’s so much potentially interesting story and character work that it is disappointing it’s obscured by the overly finessed narrative.
White Noise is a film with no idea what it wants to be. Somehow, this domestic drama from a director with an innate feeling for family drama ends up feeling overly stylized and chaotic. There are comedy, drama, noir, environmental horror, and noir elements worked throughout White Noise, and ultimately, none of these genres truly work together.
White Noise is more than a bit frustrating because any collection of these segments could work independently. As the domestic comedy gives way to the environmental disaster and later to a noir-ish mystery, these charismatic and dynamic performers could sell a more straightforward narrative. Unfortunately, Baumbach’s presence behind the camera proves so heavy-handed he overwhelms the film.
As a filmmaker, Baumbach is traditionally unafraid to let his characters stand on their own in all their humanistic quirkiness. His style thrives in the unconventional and raw humanity he’s often able to capture. When considering this, it’s strange that White Noise is … white noise (pun intended). These characters end up less like the fully-rounded humans we should see from this talented cast and are instead cartoonish caricatures. These performers are too good for that.
When all is said and done, White Noise makes exorbitant promises and provides some tantalizing snippets. However, this ultimately proves to be a film that wants to do too much. There’s so much talent in front of and behind the camera; however, what should be a fascinatingly quirky film doesn’t work. There are too many tonal shifts and lofty expectations, and a weighty script overpowers everything happening onscreen. I suppose it is possible to have too much substance.
White Noise streams on Netflix beginning December 30, 2022.
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