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Noah Baumbach's 'White Noise' adaptation is brave, even if not entirely successful

The new Netflix film White Noise, IS the latest film from Noah Baumbach, best known for movies like The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story. The movie is adapted from Don DeLillo's 1985 novel, a cool, dazzling book shot through with so many shifting ironies that virtually every reviewer has described it as unfilmable.



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Other segments from the episode on January 6, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 6, 2023: Obituary of Thom Bell; Review of film 'White Noise.'



This is FRESH AIR. The new film "White Noise," now streaming on Netflix, is the latest from Noah Baumbach, whose last movie, "Marriage Story," was nominated for six Academy Awards. Based on a novel by Don DeLillo, it stars Adam Driver as a professor whose family and friends face all manner of disasters, both personal and public. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, enjoyed the movie and says he admires Baumbach's attempt to do something new.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: These are frustrating days for ambitious American filmmakers. Critics and older filmgoers bemoan that our screens offered little more than blockbuster franchises and cheap horror pictures. Yet when directors try to make something different and daring, they usually get thumped if they don't completely succeed. Take the new Netflix film "White Noise," the latest film from Noah Baumbach, best known for movies like "The Squid And The Whale" and "Marriage Story." The movie is adapted from Don DeLillo's 1985 novel, a cool, dazzling book shot through with so many shifting ironies that virtually every reviewer has described it as unfilmable.

Well, Baumbach has filmed it. And though I can't call his adaptation a triumph, a lot of the reviews strike me as being ungenerous to a brave attempt. "White Noise" is bursting with fun things to watch. And though the story takes place in the 1980s, it tackles present-day preoccupations - human-caused disaster, media saturation, drug addiction and consumerism. A deglamorized Adam Driver stars as Jack Gladney, a professor in the popular department of Hitler Studies, a program he invented not because he admires der Fuhrer but because Hitler is a strong brand in the intellectual marketplace.

He lives in a cozy college town, along with his slightly dippy fourth wife, Babette - played by Greta Gerwig with big, bouncy curls - and their kids from assorted marriages. Whether the Gladneys are all having breakfast or driving in their station wagon, their scenes crackle with the sometimes inane, sometimes pointed texture of family crosstalk. Their story unfolds in three very different chapters, all tinged with satire. The first part lays out the Gladneys' life. In the second disaster-film chapter, a calamitous train wreck menaces their town with a so-called airborne toxic event, whose foreboding black cloud forces them to flee to a camp for evacuees. Once that gets sorted out, the noirish Chapter 3 tells the story of Babette's use of a mysterious drug called Dylar and the violence it engenders.

While this may make "White Noise" sound dauntingly dark, its default tone is actually jaunty, if ironically so. Baumbach creates scenes that recall popular TV shows like "The Simpsons" and "Stranger Things." And in Don Cheadle's character, a professor named Murray, you get an upbeat version of a Greek chorus who sounds happy as a clam, no matter what he's discussing. Here in a class, Murray begins by talking about the death of his specialty, Elvis Presley, and as in an academic battle of the bands, Jack tries to top him with the fall of Hitler.


DON CHEADLE: (As Murray) Elvis fulfilled the terms of his contract - excess, deterioration, self-destructiveness, grotesque behavior, a physical bloating and a series of insults to the brain, self-delivered. His place in legend is secure. He bought off the skeptics by dying early, horribly, unnecessarily. No one could deny him now. His mother probably saw it all, as on a 19-inch screen, years before her own death.

ADAM DRIVER: (As Jack) Picture Hitler near the end, trapped in his Fuhrerbunker beneath the burning city. He looks back to the early days of his power, when crowds came, mobs of people overrunning the courtyard, singing patriotic songs, painting swastikas on the walls, on the flanks of farm animals. Crowds came to his mountain villa. Crowds came to hear him speak, crowds erotically charged, the masses he once called his only bride.

POWERS: Although Baumbach has a real gift for domestic realism, he's always been drawn to the audacity of the French New Wave. He loves its formal iconoclasm and juxtaposition of tones, from the lyrical to the intellectual to the silly. He attempts such a tonal collage here, and I regret to say that his "White Noise" doesn't hold together as well as DeLillo's. In fact, watching "White Noise" reminds me a bit of watching the work of the New Wave's greatest genius, Jean-Luc Godard, who was, as it happens, a huge influence on DeLillo. Godard's movies always tended to shuffle brilliant scenes with sections that leave you weak with boredom. You get the same unevenness here, but Baumbach is less intimidating than Godard or DeLillo, neither of whom ever worried about making the audience happy. Baumbach keeps "White Noise" on the lighter, less political side of the ledger, as in the joyous supermarket finale that's miles from DeLillo's trademark sense of paranoia and dread.

Laced with good jokes, the movie brims with terrific moments, be it Murray's magnificent riff on Hollywood car crashes, which he sees as an expression of American optimism, or the sly sequence at the evacuee camp that seems to come from a missing movie by Baumbach's friend and collaborator, Wes Anderson. Early on, Jack and Babette have a talk in which each admits that they hope they die before the other. It's partly funny, partly not, and it underscores "White Noise's" obsession with death, the fear of dying and especially the countless ways we fend off that fear - by turning catastrophes into media spectacles, by reducing the genocidal Hitler to a kind of pop icon, by smoothing ourselves out with dodgy drugs and by pretending that the disasters we see on TV could never hit us. And if all else fails, the movie assures us, we can always go shopping.

BIANCULLI: John Powers reviewed the new movie "White Noise," now streaming on Netflix.

On Monday's show, Jonathan Escoffery. His book of interconnected short stories, "If I Survive You," is on our book critic Maureen Corrigan's Best of 2022 list. The main character, like Escoffery, is the American-born son of Jamaican immigrants trying to figure out how race and racism work in America and where he's supposed to fit. Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Adam Staniszewski. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


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