Noah Baumbach is nothing if not fascinated by conversations, and not merely in the sense of conveying information through language, but the hows, whys, and struggles of having conversations, no matter what the subject. Looked at as a whole, his body of work is very similar to Robert Altman’s in that it seems best described as a massive variety of ways in which not much happens other than people talking to each other.
In White Noise things happen… and yet.
The events of White Noise are not only somewhat batty, but everything that happens is at once over-studied and apparently random. Despite this being an adaptation of a well-known novel, it becomes more of an unpacking. It feels at times as though this was conceived on a dare with someone calling out the weirdest possible thing that could happen in a moment followed by the hyper-dissecting of what comes of that roll of the die. Moreover, most scenes play out with both a precision of dialogue that reminds of Whit Stilman and also give the impression that Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, and Don Cheadle are improvising their lines.
Throughout its three distinct acts, we wander along with a family that is at first plodding through the drudgery of their routine, then trying to escape a death cloud, and finally staring directly at the madness of their lives, and life. Jack (Driver) is a professor and one of the world’s leading experts on Hitler Studies, whatever that is exactly, and he’s fascinated by car crashes in film. It’s the perfect combination of tragedy awareness, group experience study, and distilled boredom, and sets Driver up as a satire/hyperbole straight man who will carry events on his shoulder, even if accidentally.
His family “manages” through their days in a way that removes the “average” from having 2.5 children, 3 psychological diagnoses, and crushing dread of the future. Jack is an everyman riddled with peculiarities that nevertheless can’t budge him from the “typical,” and so is his family. When they suddenly find themselves piling into the station wagon for an emergency evacuation a natural panic sets in, but Jack seems to confront it as one more abnormality that is ultimately not so different from the last. Scenes leading to, and inside, a relocation facility find Jack bored with the “drama,” chatting with his family and those running things as if he were simply puttering around the grocery store waxing philosophic, as he frequently does.
The film’s examination is all too real and sends the audience live into the realm of Jack’s soliloquies on filmed car crashes and group experiences. Yet, as much as the curious twists showcase what is perhaps the mad race at zero speed, it’s the spotlight on conversations that elevates this one beyond what is rather easy to write off about it. Where events are trivial, the conversations are difficult, layered, or dizzyingly uncomfortable. Where we move into an oddness approaching slapstick, they are measured and almost shockingly natural. Best of all, they are increasingly revealing as Jack and Babette (Gerwig) prove to be their own opposites, and both commonplace and unreal. It’s hard to imagine delivering any of this without the natural charisma of Driver, Gerwig, and especially Cheadle pulling you along, because this is ultimately a film and story that isn’t boring, or even about being bored, but about why people don’t want to bored.