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In White Noise, Noah Baumbach takes Netflix money and runs away

When books are written about Netflix’s great investment in prestigious cinema, that of Noah Baumbach White noise it may go down as the movie that finally killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. This isn’t to say that the streaming service will never fund an auteur’s vain project again: it hasn’t won the Best Picture Oscar yet, and spoilers, this movie won’t be the one to win it, but it’s unlikely it will. . on this scale again. the Irish it was more expensive Blond it was more of a disaster, but for sheer hubris, you can’t beat an apocalyptic period adaptation of a supposedly unfilmable literary classic, by a director best known for caustic domestic comedies, on a rumored $140 million budget. We certainly won’t be seeing anything like that again, not from Netflix, at least.

You can also go out with a bang. Adapted from Don DeLillo’s beloved 1985 novel, White noise is a bewildering, uneven, and occasionally gripping film about 1980s American collective psychosis and a mock doomsday. It’s basically three movies in one: a mannered satire on academia, consumerism and the modern family is followed by a paranoid epic of Spielberg’s disaster. The final third twists into a giddy, surreal noir reminiscent of the Coen brothers at their most inscrutable. If he had to guess which of these Baumbach runs most successfully, based on his previous work, he would almost certainly be wrong.

Baumbach’s love for the original novel is evident. This is a faithful adaptation, albeit a surprisingly light-hearted and funny one. It skips only a handful of the novel’s beats, while the screenplay, which Baumbach wrote himself, reverently highlights much of DeLillo’s dialogue and prose. But, despite the fan credentials, the director is not a good fit for the book. Baumbach specializes in interpersonal dramas, such as Frances has either marriage story, written, performed and filmed in a naturalistic style. DeLillo’s book, however, is arch, stylized, and metaphorical, full of big ideas, big events, and solipsistic characters talking over each other.

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Adam Driver, dressed in an academic gown and dark glasses, chats with Don Cheadle in a colorful retro canteen.

Photo: Wilson Webb/Netflix

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The story centers on Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a professor at a pleasantly anonymous university in the heart of the country who has pioneered the provocative field of “Hitler studies.” At work, Jack covers up his lack of real studies (he can’t speak German) and engages in a spiraling intellectual discourse with his friend Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), who is thinking of branching out from car accidents to Elvis Presley. . At home, Jack good-naturedly manages a boisterous and argumentative blended family with his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig). The lovesick couple compete over which of them is more anxious to die, but something seems seriously wrong with Babette, and an ominous cloud is gathering on the horizon – literally. An accident unleashes a poisonous cloud known as an Airborne Toxic Event, and the Gladneys are caught up in a wave of panic.

Everything about this material, except its middle-class intellectual background, pushes Baumbach out of his comfort zone. (It’s also the first period piece she’s attempted, and the heightened, daytime interpretation of the 1980s in production and costume design is one of White noisemain pleasures of him.) He meets the challenge in unexpected ways. This is his most visually dense and imaginative film by far, and he deftly constructs a series of impressive set pieces: an opening lecture by Don Cheadle’s character Murray interspersed with footage of a car crash; an academic duel between Jack and Murray, loitering and pontificating around a lecture hall as they intertwine the legends of Hitler and Elvis; Jack’s genuinely creepy night terrors; and a theatrical confrontation between Jack and Babette, at the end of the film, when he manages to get her to finally open up and confess what’s wrong. The latter is exquisitely blocked and beautifully acted, notably by a distraught Gerwig.

Although the flashy CGI train wreck that precipitates the Airborne Toxic Event doesn’t actually work (it bluntly literalizes a disaster that, in the book, is all the more sinister for being distant and vague), what follows is an extraordinary sustained sequence that echoes Spielberg’s masterpiece of collective madness, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As it turns out, as a director of suspense working on a grand scale, Baumbach has the goods. Scenes of traffic jams and car carnage under boiling skies have a terrifying charge, while a stop at a deserted gas station has some of Hitchcock’s exposed terror. The birds. Later, Baumbach proves that he can mix action with comedy in a ridiculous pickup truck car chase that could easily come from a Chevy Chase movie from the period in which White noise It is established. At times, Baumbach seems more instinctively aligned with the pop culture DeLillo criticized than with DeLillo himself.

Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig and Don Cheadle chat in the aisles of a colorful 1980s supermarket

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Photo: Wilson Webb/Netflix

Unusually for Baumbach, who is usually very generous with his actors, the cast falters, drifting into the surreal grandeur of the director’s design and struggling to find rhythm in their collage of lines from the book. Tweedy and inquisitive, Cheadle fares better in this strange world, giving statements like: “She’s got major hair.” Driver has some great moments and character-packed business bits, watch the way he reaches through his academic gown to push Jack’s tinted glasses up that gorgeous nose, with a private smile, but sadly miscast. At 39, he’s at least a decade too young for Jack, and even the paunch and middle-aged patina he’s given by the makeup and wardrobe departments can’t hide the essential masculinity of him. You just can’t buy Driver as a frustrated academic; His body doesn’t know what frustrated means. Although it is very funny. Driver’s intensity often gets his comedic chops overlooked, so it’s a treat to find a film as offbeat as White noise bringing them to the fore.

What annoys DeLillo purists most about Baumbach’s film might be what makes it most enjoyable for everyone else to watch: It’s funny. It’s a messy film that can’t find the thread to make sense of DeLillo’s vision or the reality of his characters, particularly during its bewildering final third, after the Toxic Airborne Event dissipates and Jack becomes obsessed with Babette’s place. in a kind of pharmaceutical industry. conspiracy. But it has been done with ingenuity and contagious taste. Baumbach launches for laughs and scares, often with success, splashing the screen with brilliant color and movement. Under the end credits, he performs a dance number in the supermarket aisles that DeLillo and her pretentious characters imagine as the modern American church. Is Baumbach still making a point, or is he just letting go? The latter, I suspect, and more power to him. He took the money from Netflix and ran.

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White noise is now available on Netflix.

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