One should always be wary of movie adaptations of books deemed “unfilmable” by the powers that be. Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel “White Noise” eluded other filmmakers, including Barry Sonnenfeld, who dared to try to shape it into cinema. In this film’s press notes, writer-director Noah Baumbach explained his reasons for accepting the challenge: “I wanted to make a movie that was as crazy as the world appears to me right now.”
“‘White Noise’ confronts the idea of death,” Baumbach continued, “that the only way to really live your life is to know that it’s going to end.” That explanation is as empty a platitude as “no matter where you go, there you are.” And it represents the exact level of malarkey you’ll be fed if you watch this movie.
The plot of “White Noise” is not easily explained, but the gist is that the Gladney family is happily living a suburban lifestyle full of the joys of consumerism until a near-apocalyptic event changes their view of the world. Drug addiction and the fear of death become the building blocks of this failed satire. Given the choice to rewatch the film or reread its press kit, I’d choose the latter.
On Siskel & Ebert’s television show, Gene Siskel occasionally pondered whether it would be more interesting to watch a documentary about the cast of a film having lunch than to watch the actual movie made by those same cast members. I thought about Siskel’s question during the post-New York Film Festival press screening Q&A for “White Noise.”
Baumbach was on stage Sept. 30 in New York, along with Greta Gerwig, who costars as Babette, the fourth wife of her fourth husband, Jack Gladney (Adam Driver). Also present were real-life siblings May and Sam Nivola, who play Jack’s kids Steffie and Heinrich, respectively, and Raffey Cassidy, who portrays Babette’s daughter, Denise. Repping the music department were Danny Elfman, who scored the film, and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, who composed the bouncy song that serves as the closing-credits musical number.
Every comment they made during that Q&A was more interesting than anything this 136-minute hot mess of a movie had to offer, with the exception of those closing credits. That sequence is something else entirely. More on that later.
I haven’t read DeLillo’s novels, but I have seen “Cosmopolis” and “Never Ever,” the other two adaptations his work has spawned. Considering how bad they were (not even David Cronenberg could save “Cosmopolis”), perhaps that “unfilmable” label is apt. Much of the dialogue in “White Noise” is directly from the book, so I’m told. The actors gamely try to speak it without sounding like characters in a foreign-language film that’s been badly dubbed into English. They fail.
I was also told by a very disappointed fan of the novel that, other than the ending, this is a faithful adaptation. Unfortunately, a screenwriter’s fealty to the source material is often the kiss of death. Some things are just not translatable from a reader’s mind to a more objective and visual medium like film.
Take the scene where Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), a professor and colleague of Jack Gladney’s, helps Gladney spellbind his students with a spoken dissertation on Hitler and Elvis. Gladney is the chair of the department of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill (that’s actually the name of the institution). Never mind that Gladney can’t speak German, a deficiency he is quickly trying to rectify with haphazard lessons.
Cheadle and Driver dive into this ridiculous scene with reckless abandon, and the editing by Matthew Hannam matches them beat for beat. But the entire sequence is a disaster that probably played better on the page, proving that “White Noise” also lacks the skill to be tasteless.
Things pick up a bit in the second section (like the book, the film is broken into three sections) where an “airborne toxic event,” causes a mass evacuation of the Gladney’s suburban utopia. Jack is caught in this toxic cloud, which may have poisoned him. He’ll have to sit and wait 15 years for the effects to be known. This development leads to all sorts of flimsy meditations on death.
During the toxic event, Baumbach stages an action sequence that pays homage to a scene of an endless line of crashed cars in Jean-Luc Godard’s absurdist, apocalyptic 1967 film, “Weekend.” It’s the rare time “White Noise” has any life in it. Until that closing-credits sequence, that is.
Completely unrelated to the rest of the film, though an apparent summation of its themes, the ending of “White Noise” features a spectacularly staged dance number that takes place in an A&P supermarket. Here, André L. Benjamin, a.k.a. André 3000, and the rest of the cast boogie to James Murphy’s song “new body rhumba.” The choreography is quite impressive, and the fun everyone is having is madly infectious.
Might I suggest you not waste your money on the theatrical release and wait until this film is on Netflix? Then you can fast-forward to the end and just watch this sequence over and over. You can thank me later.
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Based on the novel “White Noise” by Don DeLillo. Starring Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, May Nivola, Sam Nivola, Raffey Cassidy, and André L. Benjamin. At Landmark Kendall Square. On Netflix starting Dec. 30. 136 minutes. R (profanity, though not as much as you’ll use after you watch it)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.