EARLY IN NOAH BAUMBACH’S ADAPTATION of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), a college professor with ambitions to build a career in the academic study of Elvis Presley, asks his colleague Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) to attend his next lecture on the King. In the sixteen years since Jack founded the college’s Hitler Studies department, he has become one of the world’s preeminent scholars of the Führer, and Murray hopes his presence might lend some much-needed prestige to the Elvis project. Jack drops by the lecture, and the two professors have a good-natured verbal duel on the similarities between their objects of study: Both Hitler and Elvis were mama’s boys; both commanded large crowds, etcetera. What did it mean to be part of the vast audiences whom both men held in such rapt attention? Perhaps it feels safer to be part of a crowd than to be an individual? Maybe being in a crowd can trick us into thinking we can cheat death?
Not convinced? It wasn’t a very clever point when DeLillo made it either, but at least the infiltration of pop culture into the academy was a more novel phenomenon in 1985, and at least DeLillo’s bemused tone and bone-dry prose left some room for ambiguity (the idea of a world-historic genocidal dictator standing alongside a pop star on an academic syllabus was, after all, supposed to be sorta funny). Baumbach, for whom bemusement comes less naturally than acidity, cuts between this dialogue and the film’s catalyzing incident: a collision between a train and a truck that causes a potentially deadly “airborne toxic event.” At the moment of collision, he juxtaposes footage of Presley in concert, communicating . . . what, exactly? Is a meaningful parallel really supposed to be drawn between these things? Is Elvis and everything he represents supposed to be like the virulent miasma that will bring society to a standstill? The specter of postmodernism also haunted DeLillo’s novel, but it wasn’t channeled quite so clunkily.
A mostly faithful adaptation of the novel, Baumbach’s film is also an awkward attempt to reconfigure it into a 2022 Movie of the Moment, following several years in which airborne viruses and fascist demagogues have been subjects of widespread discussion. DeLillo’s novel is both dense and austere, its many Big Ideas hashed over largely through droll, rat-a-tat dialogue. Baumbach, whose films are typically small-scaled and unostentatious, has unexpectedly turned it into an $80 million superproduction, layering DeLillo’s back-and-forths cacophonously atop each other and employing Pop art production design that puts the 1980s setting through a 1960s filter. The prominent Brillo boxes in several key scenes are surely not there randomly: Like Warhol’s postmodern simulacra, Murray (a scholar of pop culture) and Jack (a Hitler specialist who speaks no German) are all surface.
It’s probably not an accident, then, that the lead performances feel like they’re delivered within quotation marks. To play the fiftyish, thrice-divorced protagonist, Adam Driver has a potbelly, receding hairline, and Noo Yawk Intellectual accent that drifts in and out. Driver is a rare “bankable” leading man who has made a special project of helping to keep big-budget auteur cinema alive, and shouldering this burden means he occasionally finds himself disastrously miscast. As Jack’s wife, Greta Gerwig retains the affectless, slightly dazed presence she had when she was a more regular on-screen presence, while Cheadle amps up his natural charisma to a cartoonish level. The three of them might as well be in different movies.
The story is divided into three parts—before, during, and after the disaster. It begins as bluntly satiric and broadly comic before getting bogged down in the last third with some failed suspense that the performances struggle to sell. In the end, we learn that if nothing is real and death is inevitable, we must try to at least believe in each other—a point far lamer than anything DeLillo wrote, made worse by the thick Danny Elfman score lathered over it. It all ends with a big dance number at a vast supermarket—a space that both Baumbach and DeLillo seem to regard as a grand metaphor for consumer culture, but which I regard as a place where people buy food to live. Baumbach knows enough about film history to probably be winking at the grocery store uprising that ends Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Tout va bien (1972), though Godard and Gorin’s wounded dream of political liberation couldn’t be further from Baumbach’s smug conclusion: There’s no escape from banality, but at least we can smirk at it.
White Noise begins streaming on Netflix on December 30.