The mind takes conditioning to get on the right wavelength to wrestle with post-modernist social satire. We’re decades removed from screen satire’s golden age, an era roughly bracketed by two Peter Sellers films, “Dr. Strangelove” and “Being There.”
And getting a handle on writer Don Dellilo, whose breakout novel, “White Noise” brought his Hemingway meets Vonnegut, Allende, Rushie and Updike style, themes and subject matter to the wider public and great acclaim, exercises other muscles that the cinephile is rarely called on to use.
“White Noise” is now a big budget “prestige picture” from Netflix, a sprawling shock to the system that feels true to the book, and yet glib and on the whole, unsatisfying. There’s a reason this 1985 work hasn’t been filmed before now. And throwing $140 million and Noah Baumbach (“The Meyerowitz Stories, “Mistress America” and “While We’re Young”) at it explains why.
Adam Driver plays our protagonist, Dr. Jack Gladney, a middle-aged academic at The College on the Hill in bucolic Blacksmith mid America. He is “North America’s foremost expert” on Adolf Hitler.
“I teach advanced Naziism,” he cracks.
Jack is married, for the umpteenth time, to the poodle-curled Babette (Greta Gerwig, Mrs. Baumbach), and their combined families include two daughters and two sons.
Jack is an amusing collection of contradictions. He’s a rock star lecturer on campus, but a Hitler expert having to take secret German lessons from a local immigrant, because God forbid academia figure out he doesn’t know Hitler’s native tongue. He is devoted to his latest wife, but concerned and suspicious when her teen daughter from a previous marriage (Raffey Cassidy) discovers a prescription — one among many — that “Babo” is taking. Babo is becoming more and more forgetful as a result, and nobody Jack speaks to has ever heard of this drug.
Jack is obsessed with mortality, his own, and the fear that he won’t “go first,” which he expresses to his wife, who shares that fear because neither wants to be left “alone.”
But that fear of death is strangely dormant when the family and their world faces an existential and tactile threat. A railway chemical accident sends Jack’s brilliant son Heidrich (Sam Nivola) into early 80s (pre-Internet) research and threat-identifying (and fear-mongering) overdrive.
“The Airborne Toxic Event” is coming, and only Jack seems unwilling to grasp the emergency at hand.
No, we weren’t paranoid about the Zombie Apocalypse in the ’80s. But we did have a flippant, shallow, draft-dodging actor in the White House prone to “limited nuclear war” wisecracks. And we didn’t yet live in a media environment that allowed for easy dismissal or gaslighting away disasters in the making, either.
We trusted “authority,” be it governmental or media.
The family, society and culture will be tested by this disaster and the “White Noise” of modern life, and unravel a bit before the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” ethos of the day bubbles up.
I love the quick-stroke skewering of academia that Baumbach scatters through the opening scenes. Don Cheadle, playing Dr. Murray Siskind, an expert on the morphology and and meaning of car crashes in American cinema — and Elvis — lands many of the movie’s biggest laughs, and the occasional searing insight.
“We are fragile people surrounded by hostile facts.”
One bravura sequence comes when Murray summons Jack to his Elvis class as moral support in his battle to protect his turf within whatever quirky umbrella heading their “department” lives under. They engage in a funny, complimentary rap-battle lecture, pointing out the similarities of two of the 20th century’s most famous and infamous “mama’s boys,” Der Fuhrer and The King.
Every scene’s soundtrack is layered with inquisitive kid-questions, chatty commentary, lively debate and ennui not borne in silence.
It’s when the “Airborne Toxic Event” hits that this noisy mayhem is muted, and then whipped to a crescendo as Baumbach creates a “World War Z” level cacophony of chaos — mass, manic evacuation, citizens herded into a Boy Scout camp, officialdom treating this murderous emergency like “an exercise” while all those concentrated into this one place tune in to their radios and bulky portable TVs, desperate for information, furious — as one evacuee, played by Bill Camp notes — at the way the country and the world are ignoring and forgetting them already.
Scenes like that animate the film, and yet underscore the most lethal two-word takedown of DeLillo’s choice of themes, and his style — he also novelized reactions to Lee Harvey Oswald (“Libra”) and the Cold War (“Underworld”). “Hysterical realism.”
The performances here aren’t particularly affecting, as Baumbach treats even the serious issues and pointed social commentary as cartoonish. I mean, he cast the one-hit-wonder singer-turned-actor Andre Benjamin as a fellow academic and does a Bollywood/Gurinder Chadha dance-off bringing the entire cast into the gaudy sanctity of the Blacksmith A & P for the closing credits.
He fixates on the ugly clothes, uglier cars and forgivingly-unfit body-types of the ’80s, with Driver taking on a pot belly for his part and everybody’s hair a proto-MTV nightmare. Beyond the surface gloss, this film begs for focus, insight and meaning.
I’m afraid this is another case of Netflix’s Big Blank Check indulging a filmmaker, who cashed it and lost himself in the “White Noise” superficialities while never quite wrestling a perhaps-unfilmable novel into shape.
Rating: R, violence and (profanity)
Cast: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Nivola, Jodie Turner-Smith, Andre Benjamin and Bill Camp.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Noah Baumbach, based on a Don DeLillo novel. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:16