White Noise

I read Don DeLillo's novel White Noise many years ago, and while I liked it all right, I really don't recall anything about it. I feel much the same about Noah Baumbach's adaptation.

DeLillo's novel was published in 1985 and was set at that time. Writer/director Baumbach's film is a period piece, likewise set in the 1980s although it could have worked just as well in the 2020s. The script is split into three sections, presumably like the book. (You see, I don't remember.) The middle section concerns a mysterious environmental disaster called the Airborne Toxic Event – the one thing I do remember from the book – and it's a lively, rollicking episode, quite Spielbergian in its look and energy. Unfortunately it is sandwiched between two duller sections that have almost nothing to do with it, starting with a pretentious slice-of-life comedy about a fictitious Ohio college and ending with an occasionally truthful but ultimately silly relationship drama.

Adam Driver stars as a nerdy professor of "Hitler studies" who is trying to keep up with his kids, his colleagues (led by Don Cheadle in a rare bad performance), his dizzy wife (actress-turned-director Greta Gerwig, stepping back in front of the camera for boyfriend Baumbach), and modern life in general. It's neither his best nor his worst work.

White Noise is such a mess – if not an entirely disagreeable one – that nobody besides Baumbach and I suppose DeLillo himself can be blamed for its shortcomings. It's not godawful, except for maybe that first section, but it reminded me of Breakfast of Champions, the 1999 screen adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut book, and even of Mike Nichols's Catch-22 misfire: each provides a solid argument that absurdist novels don't work as movies.