Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 02, 2023 8:50 am 
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Baumbach goes big

The obvious link of White Noise with Noah Baumbach's first film, The Squid and the Whale (NYFF 2005), is the pretentious academic father, and the questioning children. But in other ways this bold, risk-taking new venture is another big step forward, as Noah Baumbach's terrific last film, Marriage Story (NYFF 2019), also was. This is the writer-director's first adaptation, and it's of a famous novel by Don DeLillo from 1985, also his first movie made on such a grand scale and with such a big budget and with such wild comic absurdity. It could be a grandiose failure: White Noise has for forty years been considered unfilmable. Welll, he's done it, and while not all of it works, especially not the last part, it was worth it. And I'd advise you to get on Netflix and enjoy it.

There are delights and complexities here never seen in a Noah Baumbach movie. This is the kind of picture you want to go back to. There's a lot going on and so much of it is rich and fun. The cynicism and satire and self-congratulatory cleverness of DeLillo's novel are all there - but with them a touching warm-heartedness and a caring about a family and a marriage we've never seen before in the director. Robbie Collin of the Daily Telegraph aptly describes White Noise as akin to "an early Steven Spielberg film having a nervous breakdown" and its frequent overlapping-dialogue passages have widely been linked to Robert Altman's style. But above all it's Don DeLillo, filtered, some think brilliantly, some think not enough, through the sensibility of Noah Baumbach.

The story is hard to summarize. It's about a lot of stuff, from messy families to academic pretension to toxic waste and environmental degradation to - the big one - fear of death. Things revolve around a small college in Ohio where J.A.C. Gladney (Adam Driver, with a paunch), known as Jack, is a professor of Hitler Studies who can't speak German, but is nonetheless widely celebrated for his theories, which delve into power and fame and the oddities of personal development - that Hitler was a mamma's boy and studied art - and overlook the Holocaust. Jack lives with Babette (Greta Gerwig, curly-blonde mophead), aka Baba, who teaches physical therapy. They have four children (all excellent), three by previous marriages (both are on their fourth), one, little Wilder (Henry and Dean Moore), their own.

Jack has several colleagues, the important one Murray Siskind (a droll Don Cheadle) is a professor who likes to talk about films of accidents and car crashes, and celebrates them as symbolic of American optimism. The satire of Eighties academic pretension flows freely. A whole lot else is going on in the thee-part division of the novel, first of all centering on the "airborne toxic event," then "Dylar," an experimental drug to ease fear of death (but with dire side-effects, like inability to distinguish words from things), then a crazy-fantastic finale with philosophical explorations that don't work but whose botched revenge-murder reminds me of Peter Sellers brilliant improvised finale for Kubrick's Lolita. All through there is a return to a big supermarket as the place these consumer-crazed citizens take refuge in, with a glorious musical finale in the big A&P over the closing credits. The last section makes hilarious use of two excellent German actors, Barbara Sukowa as Sister Hermann Marie and Lars Eidinger as Mr. Gray.

The CGI and crowd-wrangling and disaster-staging are all new and great fun for a director who dealt in intimacy and family relationships before this. The gigantic crash of a big rig tanker truck driven by a drunk and loaded with gasoline into a train carrying toxic chemicals is the central event you've got to stage big-time, and Bauambach does it very nicely indeed: the black cloud of the pricelessly entitled "airborne toxic event" is in fact gorgeous. So also in their way are the car lineups and Eighties actioner-style backup crashes into metal garbage cans, the station wagon floating down the river with the Gladneys in it, the public and private voices fumbling and reshuffling advice and cover stories, just like Covid, as has been widely commented. This is the time when Sam Nivola shines as son Heinrich, the adolescent's rationality setting off Jack's uselessness and denial.

It's been a criticism of this precisely period mid-Eighties film that it's simply dated, and it's also been praised for getting the period just right, and achieving special relevance right now. It's all a bit true and who knows how this movie will age? It may be never better than right now. But it's also going to be fun in future watchings to w0rk out how the film's improvisations extrapolate and translate DeLillo's novel in movie form. It's enjoyable to see how - this comes in the Sam Nivola part - the satire on intellectual fakery indirectly celebrates intelligence. The last part isn't a success but the warmth and sympathy for this couple only grows. Baumbach strongly anchors DeLillo's picture of American's disquietude (their inability to find comfort or escape their mortality through their things and gadgets, in Driver's and Gerwig's humanness. This is a story/book that's mean and nasty and cynical but has a strong thread of love in it. It's this complexity that makes Baumbach's White Noise curiously endearing and memorable. The critical response has been mixed, reflected in a Metacritc rating of only 66%. But I can see why Mike D'Angelo in his "Year in Review" on Patreon makes this film his no. 5 of 10 but also mentions it as the "Outlier' and "Most Underrated," "the finest direction of Baumbach's career" and the movie he's currently most ready to go back to and resample.

White Noise, 136 mins., premiered at Venice Aug. 31, 2022 and debuted in the US in the New York Film Festival as the Opening Night Film Sept. 30 and showed at a dozen other festivals including London, Tokyo, Miami and Lisbon. Limited US theatrical release Nov. 25. From Netflix, US streaming release Dec. 30. Screened for this review online Jan. 1, 2023. Metacritic rating: 66%. AlloCiné press rating 3.7 (74%).

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