White Noise is based on the Don DeLillo book, which was the novel that placed him as one of the best writers about America. It's been long in development—disgraced producer Scott Rudin owned the rights for a while, and then for years Barry Sonnenfeld was set to direct it. In more recent years Michael Almereyda was in the frame. In the end, at some time during the Covid pandemic (which has some parallels with the film if you want to see it) Noah Baumbach came on board.
For those who don't know the book, it's a satire about consumerism, technology, academia, the nuclear family and much more – it's a Don DeLillo book, after all. Baumbach has done a fairly faithful adaptation of the book. Most of the story beats are there, although when I read the book it felt a lot more apocalyptic than the film. The book came out in 1985, so what Baumbach has decided to do was set it during that period. I think that's the right choice, because some of the references in the book would not work so well today.
Adam Driver plays Professor Jack Gladney, whose field is Hitler Studies—not the Third Reich, not Nazism or totalitarianism, but specifically the man and his ideas. But despite being an “expert,” he doesn't speak German. He's married to Babette (Greta Gerwig), and they have four kids from their own and other marriages. One of Jack's co-workers is Murray J. Siskind, whose academic fields are Elvis Presley and the cinema of car crashes. His course is very similar to Jack's, so they are always trying to one-up each other.
They all live in a nondescript midwestern town (in this case, mainly filmed in Akron, Ohio), and then a black, noxious cloud arrives due to an airborne toxic event, leading to an evacuation order. The characters end up at a sort of campsite while they figure out what to do next, and things get even stranger.
Baumbach makes it feel a little bit like a Spielberg disaster movie, and it does have some tonal similarities with Jaws (the tone is all over the place, actually, but that matches the book.) There's a bit of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and while I wouldn't say Driver is channeling Richard Dreyfuss, but there are some extreme and surprising behaviours on the part of Jack and others. It's more darkly comedic than most Spielberg stuff, and goes to places he would not, especially at that point in his career. Baumbach actually made a documentary about Brian De Palma, and there are moments when he takes some visual motifs from De Palma's films as well. There's some Coen Brothers influence in there too (Sonnenfeld was the cinematographer on their early films, which is why he would have also been an interesting choice). The characters definitely feel like they could be in a Coen Brothers film, with this level of existential absurdity.
Up to this point, Baumbach's previous films have all been dramedies in the vein of Woody Allen or Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed, while this is a very different type of film. He's getting to play around with new ideas—and if you added up all his previous films, it wouldn't come close to the $80m budget he had here.
One of the more interesting changes is that the Professor Siskind character (Don Cheadle) is white in the book, and Baumbach's casting decision takes the level of absurdity of “Elvis Studies” to a higher level. That's the kind of clever alteration that could have been a disaster in the wrong hands, but it works. I always prefer Driver when he can go big, like in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote or Annette, than in films like A Marriage Story. He's got a fat suit on here and looks visibly older, and he seems to be having an absolute ball. I think almost all the dialogue is from the book, but that's also one of Baumbach's strengths. He's able to play up the absurdity of all the various situations they find themselves in successfully. It's also nice to see Gerwig in a meaty role again, and the very weird relationship she and her husband have.
It's all on a grand scale, with some amazing cinematography from Lol Crawley, a British cinematographer who has not collaborated with the director previously. Apparently Crawley was a last-minute choice, hired after Alan Parker's go-to cinematographers Michael Seresin—one of the quintessential ‘80s film cinematographers—was allegedly sacked halfway through, reportedly after he clashed with the director over multiple takes and creative differences. It looks like Crawley was a good choice, although who knows, all the best work might have been Seresin's. Either way, it's Baumbach's best-looking movie. It manages to be both an epic and a family story at once, with the result landing somewhere between Close Encounters and Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend—and there's definitely some shots stolen from Weekend, but given that Godard's film has the best traffic jam scene ever, that's understandable.
The supermarket is very important in the story, the centre of life for the characters. The final scene and end credits even shift to a musical number located in the supermarket, with a new song from LCD Soundsystem. Personally, I would have liked a few more ‘80s songs on the soundtrack to set the mood more (it can't have been the budget that prevented it).
DeLillo's work walks a fine line between speculative fiction and science fiction, and Baumbach shaves off much of the latter, which is fine for the film. It's a good adaptation of a book that was for years deemed unfilmable—and the producer of White Noise has now bought the rights to DeLillo's Underworld as well. White Noise marks a new kind of Baumbach and it will interesting to see where he goes next.