Having never read the Don DeLillo story on which Noah Baumbach's White Noise is based, the film to me was a novel concept and a good one at that. Part-mystery, part-psychological thriller, part-relationship drama, it juggles a variety of tones and somehow manages to come out consistently funny and occasionally moving.
The plot follows Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a world-leading Hitler studies professor, as he prepares for a Hitler conference and puzzles over his wife Babette's (Greta Gerwig) apparent memory loss. Baumbach mines the university setting for comedy gold, assembling a delightfully pretentious cast of academics, lead by a wonderful Don Cheadle as Professor Murray Siskind.
Together, they talk of each others' brilliance, Murray's hopes of doing to Elvis what Gladney did to Hitler and death, a major theme. These conversations ground the film, their silliness informing its approach as a whole. It uses them to show that sophisticated answers to life's most difficult questions are usually full of crap. Or, worse, completely out of touch with reality.
Outside the academic setting, we get the film's real focus: family, relationships and anxiety. At a glance, the Gladney's seem to be living an idyllic suburban existence but, even before things start going wrong in the world outside, Babette's increasingly distant state reminds us that things are never so simple.
The performances here are all solid but the chemistry between Driver and Gerwig is something else. They somehow manage to make their relationship seem vital, lovely and strange but at the same time a torturous and inescapable prison. That said, laughs are never far away and this is largely down to Driver. He brings a straight-faced slapstick physicality to the role of Gladney, making the character more and more ridiculous whilst leaving little doubt that he takes himself very seriously.
Inventive plot points coupled with a lively script, vibrant cinematography and a whimsical Danny Elfman score (not to mention all of the above) keep the film moving way into the third act but it is here, if anywhere, that it stumbles. It has by this point introduced some lofty themes and in the end can address them with only a shrug and a few more jokes. This approach, although well-justified in the context, is a little alienating. The characters ostensibly reach a shakey resolution by the end but this is achieved so fast and in the midst of such silliness that it doesn't feel earned. Then again, maybe that's okay. We are left with a fun final set-piece and a question mark over what will happen next. And for this story that feels right.