True to its title, White Noise—Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel—is an interminable, monotonous drone of a film. Baumbach’s reverence for the source material is clear, but his fealty to it results in an uneven writing that fails to provide any original or penetrating insights into the middle America it satirizes, or to establish any emotional resonance of its own. Taken as an absurdist work it similarly disappoints, veering awkwardly between existential ideas without amounting to anything profound. Throughout, there’s an air of smug self-satisfaction that’s especially ill-suited to a film as uninventive as this one, which excites only in the rare moments where Baumbach twists DeLillo’s story into his own shapes.
Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a professor of “Hitler studies” at the College-on-the-Hill, seems to have achieved the American Dream. Successful and well-fed, he’s happily married to his fourth wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), with whom he’s raising four children conceived in various relationships. Outwardly, their lives are tranquil and secure, composed of routine family dinners and trips to the grocery store. But there’s a rot beneath the surface that’s visible in Jack and Babette’s intense preoccupation with death and their awkward interactions with the children. When a chemical spill envelops the family’s quaint college town in a cloud of noxious smoke, they are forced to evacuate, and Jack’s exposure to the toxin threatens to uproot his carefully ordered existence.