Noah Baumbach's witty, well-acted 'White Noise' starts strong, trails off

Posted at 3:07 PM, Dec 29, 2022

TUCSON, Ariz. — Oozing with charm and smarm, "White Noise" is a biting satire of 1980s excess that's filled with clever chuckles and powerful performances.

What it lacks is a cohesive story, which makes an otherwise satisfying film seem like a glass half-empty by the end.

Writer/director Noah Baumbach adapts a darkly satirical Don DeLillo novel with panache and confidence, weaving a rich tapestry of characters that are fun to observe and gawk at.

The film, which opens on Netflix Friday, deploys a powerhouse cast upon a whip-smart script. Adam Driver plays Professor Jack Gladney, who has parlayed an overpowering obsession with Hitler into an academic platform. A colleague, Murray (Don Cheadle), admires his standing and wants to parlay his own obsession with Elvis to similar success.

Jack raises several children with his fourth wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), who hides the drugs she takes to cope with life's demands while running a posture class and presiding over infighting among her brood. Each of the children is beset with insecurities and tendencies that mirror those of their parents. Jack and Babette spend long nights swapping their insecurities about mortality and overanalyzing their relationship and family dynamics.

Taking cues from Wes Anderson, Baumbach crafts a navel-gazing, self-aware world that mocks 1980s social norms and reflects parallels with modern times. The lighthearted tone saps the film of the dramatic power Baumbach has demonstrated with the likes of "The Squid and the Whale" and "Marriage Story," but the effort is consistently funny and rarely dull.

After a strong start, the film's impact gradually wears away as it falls victim to bizarre plot machinations that feel abrupt and unwarranted. The material probably would have worked better in a miniseries format, which would have given the material more room to breathe. The charm and chemistry among Driver, Cheadle, and Gerwig can only take the appeal so far.

"White Noise" may not be a top-flight Oscar contender, but even an inconsistent effort from Baumbach is more interesting than most other films out there. "White Noise" is, at worst, an admirable semi-failure that fizzles out with a sardonic smile.