“But out of some persistent sense of large-scale ruin, we keep inventing hope.” Jack (Adam Driver)
Despite our youthful sense of hope, Americans have forever been shunning death from buying groceries in large amounts to releasing anxieties through Hollywood musicals. Now writer/director Noah Baumbach has crafted a satire, White Noise (based on the popular Don DeLillo novel), so gentle yet so perceptive you might neglect that fear of death and embrace a Spielberg-like fantasy set in the Reagan era about a liberal college town experiencing a toxic cloud of chemicals from an explosion forcing them to evacuate their safe haven.
Jack, a professor of Hitler Studies (talk about death!) at The College on the Hill, regularly converses with his sweet wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), about hoping he will die before her. Add to that concern the airborne toxic event that threatens his tight-knit family, and Baumbach takes us into Spielberg’s War of the Worlds neighborhood, careening out of town while practically mowing down anybody in the way of their station wagon.
During the flight, the family chats away about disparate topics as most academic families I know do. Jack’s family station wagon and its slo-mo trajectory not only evoke National Lampoon’s Vacation, but it also humorously underscores their race to outpace death (not a promising mission). By the way, Driver and Gerwig are Golden Globes nominated for these roles.
Even in the casual meetings of Jack’s academic buddies, the conversation is brainy, eccentric, and deathless. An academic specialist in Elvis, Murray (Don Cheadle), seems removed from Elvis’s tragic death.
The dry delivery, e.g., “I see these car crashes as part of a long tradition of American optimism!” (Murray) with many of the characters is indicative of Baumbach’s twinkled-eyed pessimism that his fellow Americans will never fully understand how their demise is both sad and terrible but never meant to restrain their happiness.
Staying to the end of White Noise will afford you the joy of seeing Americans singing and dancing in an A & P. Yes, this is a quirky but hopeful take on the Reagan era and our contemporary society. Great Christmas fare.
Director: Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story, Frances Ha)
Screenplay: Baumbach (Fantastic Mr. Fox), DeLillo (from novel by Don DeLillo)
Cast: Adam Driver (Marriage Story), Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)
Run Time: 2h 16m
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics as well as podcasts Back Talk and Double Take out of WCBE 90.5 FM. Contact him at JohnDeSando52@gmail.com