Adam Driver and writer-director Noah Baumbach follow their collaboration on the dour “Marriage Story” with a considerably quirkier Netflix movie in “White Noise,” a faithful adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel that loses a great deal in translation. Baumbach’s pandemic-inspired undertones resonate on that level, but it’s played in such stilted fashion as to make “White Noise” pretty easy to tune out.
There’s a personal quality to the film, which includes casting Baumbach’s partner, Greta Gerwig, who has been busily making her own mark as a director, including the upcoming “Barbie.” In a way, her off-kilter performance encapsulates both the David Lynch-ian aspect that Baumbach was seeking to achieve and how it misfires, feeling precious in a way that makes it difficult to buy into much of what’s on screen.
Sporting the kind of “dad bod” that doesn’t exactly dovetail with all the social-media thirst directed his way, Driver plays Jack Gladney, a college professor in Hitler Studies. He’s on his fourth wife, Babette (Gerwig), with a quartet of kids from the couple’s various marriages and a circle of pompous overly educated friends, the most prominent of which is played by Don Cheadle.
Soon, however, trouble begins to intrude on their odd little bubble, including a toxic spill with potentially dire consequences (your pandemic metaphor, lest anyone miss it) and Jack’s growing suspicions regarding his wife’s behavior, which strains their perfect-for-each-other-in-an-odd-way relationship.
Baumbach has developed a well-deserved reputation as an auteur with films like “The Squid and the Whale” and “The Meyerowitz Stories,” and while Kanye West and others have complicated the always-dicey notion of using Hitler as a sly punchline, the satirical view of eccentric academics feels like the movie’s most sure-footed gag. Between the Hitler component, the movie’s preoccupation with death and the way the leads interact, the film strongly brings to mind some of Woody Allen’s movies.
It’s everything else that falls pretty flat, from the shadowy threat of the chemical disaster – and the chaos that ensues – to the trouble in paradise that assails Jack and Babette’s marriage.
Netflix has created a haven for prestige filmmakers by financing movies that would likely struggle box-office-wise. It’s an arrangement that provides the streaming service with media attention seeking and the promotional advantages associated with landing a place in the film awards competition in exchange for artistic freedom.
With “Marriage Story,” the recipient of six Oscar nominations, the relationship proved mutually beneficial. This time Baumbach hasn’t held up his end of that bargain, in a movie that lives down to its name.
“White Noise” premieres December 30 on Netflix.