Review by Dan Skip Allen
Family dramas are an interesting subsection of films in the drama genre. Most family films are considered comedies or children's films. This time out, Noah Baumbach — not usually a director who does sci-fi or fantasy films — changes direction. He mixes sci-fi fantasy with a family drama, and I think it gets lost in translation because all I could say when I walked off the theater was, "What the heck was that?" I think he needs to stick to his strength of comedy/drama films dealing with the family dynamic in a grounded way. White Noise was a mess.
Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is a professor of Nazi history at a local community college in his town. He lives an idyllic life with his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their kids. When a train wreck occurs on the outskirts of town, sending a massive black plume of smoke up in the air, he has to evacuate his entire family. This throws their seemingly happy lives into chaos, alongside his co-workers and the rest of the townspeople. This isn't the norm for this little town.
Baumbach has crafted a different kind of film. This family sci-fi film has a unique sense of comedy, but all the elements didn't come together completely. Add in some action sequences, a la Christmas Vacation or The Mitchells vs. the Machines, and you have a quirky, weird family film. Baumbach also wrote the screenplay, so he has nobody to blame for the oddness of this movie but himself. A few things made this movie a halfway decent watch, though.
The cinematography by Lol Crawley was gorgeous. An unmistakable grain and eighties style made it stand out among so many normal-looking films. The color palette was a conscious choice by the production designer, filled with colors from oranges to reds and purples that made it look vibrant despite the graininess. Along with the cinematography in the movie were the costumes and hairstyling and makeup. This made these characters look the part of a suburban family with a station wagon for a family car.
Baumbach wanted to channel so many other movies with a similar vibe, but he fell short of that goal. There is a subplot involving the main character's wife that is just so incomprehensible it's funny. It is not supposed to be funny, but you just can't help but laugh during these scenes because it's so bad. The banter between the two characters is ridiculous. The script is all over the place, though, so that's par for the course of this movie. Baumbach's usual quirky or odd banter is just a bunch of gibberish here.
The cast is pretty good, but Driver and Gerwig can't save this film. The rest of the cast includes Don Cheadle as another professor at the community college, a friend of Driver's character. They have some good scenes together, including a debate about Elvis's mother and Hitler's mother. The actors that play the kids are fine as well. They're not too annoying as far as kids go. Jodie Turner-Smith is completely wasted as a science professor.
White Noise is a film that wants to say something about the world we have been living in for the last few years, but instead, it is an incomprehensible mess. Stars like Driver and Gerwig can't save this family drama that also wants to be a sci-fi film. In the end, it doesn't know what it wants to be. The look of the movie, namely the cinematography, is one of the most redeeming qualities, along with the costumes and hairstyling and makeup departments — they are superb. Baumbach wanted to channel family films like Christmas Vacation and The Mitchells vs. Machines, but it didn't come close to these films. It just ends up as a mess of a movie with no real direction.
White Noise screened as part of the 2022 Miami Film Festival GEMS program, which runs November 3-10.