White Noise

It’s been said that bad books make good movies. Adapting a celebrated book for the screen is often a recipe for disaster because if the writer is doing their job, the picture a reader makes in their mind trumps anything the greatest filmmaker can come up with. Happily for Noah Baumbach, he’s chosen a flawed novel by a great writer and added a joyful sensibility absent from Don DeLillo and most of his previous films.

I reread the book just before seeing the movie and found the book disjointed. After the Airborne Toxic Event—the disaster at its center—the story paradoxically loses steam and never recovers. In 2022 it’s impossible to watch or read anything with a cataclysmic event and not relate it to COVID. Baumbach reportedly read and reread the book during lockdown. While the rest of us baked bread or quit our shitty jobs, he made this movie. 

All his films are about family dysfunction in one way or another, and the Gladneys certainly don’t lack issues. But they’re somehow not doomed, despite a worldwide disaster, a serious betrayal, and a collection of tics and eccentricities that would send a therapist screaming. 

The structural problems remain: there’s a campus comedy, a disaster flick, and a crime caper that never cohere, but I liked Baumbach’s Gladney family much more than DeLillo’s. The story is still about the hollowness of American consumerism, but there’s nothing in the book that rivals the joyful supermarket dance sequence that goes on and on and on as the credits roll. Perhaps if DeLillo had published his book post-plague, he’d have imbued it with a similar sense of relief. R, 136 min.

Music Box Theatre, streaming on Netflix December 30

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