Rated R for violence, sexuality, and language. It's got a real Royal Tenenbaums vibe to the whole thing. Every element almost seems comperable in terms of explicit content to Royal Tenenbaums. Both movies don't necessarily feel R for large portions of the movie, and then something happens to remind you that it is, in fact, R.
DIRECTOR: Noah Baumbach
How do people not love this movie? Genuine question. I could honestly watch this movie forever. I never wanted it to end. Is a movie versus novel thing? I haven't read the novel, so I have no strong opinions about one beating the other. But I will tell you, despite the fact that I got a lot out of the movie by itself, that I'm really considering reading the book. (Look, I'm not commiting myself to a lifestyle change right now. I write these things in a haze anyway. Give me some room to live my life.)
Last year, Noah Baumbach changed my mind about him with Marriage Story. Okay, he changed my mind a couple years before that with Meyerowitz. I went from a guy who actively hated Noah Baumbach (okay, that's a bit rough) to someone who can't wait for his next project to come out. You can read this two ways. The first is that I've changed. I mean, we're always changing, so I'm not going to completely disregard that idea. But I also think that if I go back and watch The Squid and the Whale, I think I'll be equally mad. Which leads me to the second thing, and that's the notion that people change as artists. Baumbach confuses me. Take a gander at his IMDb page. His credits are hilarious. He wrote Madagascar 3. Now, from what I've read, he absolutely regretted doing it and he probably did it for the money. There's theories that one of the lines from Marriage Story is reflection of regret for writing that movie. Okay. Fine. But I do realize that there's something recognizable (in the auteur sense) in Baumbach's work. That's very cool, but also the bigger takeaway is that he kind of refuses to make the same kind of movie anymore.
I mean, White Noise is absolutely Baumbach. It's got that Royal Tenenbaums vibe that I mentioned earlier. It's grounded people stressing the mundaneness of life in America. It takes the mundane and lifts it up to the levels of loftiness through the lens of absurdism. (That sentence alone almost felt like Baumbach made me one of his characters. I apologize.) But instead of allowing the world to stay mundane, he places his mundane and quasi-grounded characters in a disaster film. I use the term "disaster film" because I have no other way of describing such a movie. A large element is a sci-fi disaster epic, but the rest is a commentary on academia, big pharma, and the role of truth in marriage. It's a very complex movie and I can see why people may have called the book unfilmable. But just imagine taking Owen Wilson's character from Tenenbaums and asked him to deal with apocalypse-driven mortality. That's White Noise. I absolutely love it. We can debate it, but I'm probably still going to come out of that movie loving it.
It's the fact that I fell in love with the characters from moment one. Adam Driver is a weird guy who should continue doing exactly what he's doing. It's so funny that many of us got to know Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Every so often, the image of Kylo Ren (unfortunately shirtless and swole) comes into my head and it makes me giggle. Kylo Ren seems like the least Adam Drivery role that I can imagine. Driver has almost defined himself as the guy who flourishes in a low-budget environment. He makes these phenomenal movies that often were made to lose Oscar categories. Oh, they'll get nominated, for sure. But they won't ever win. Jack might be my favorite character of his. The second that Jack represented success-in-academia, I lost it. I know that the professor archetype is well-worn, but Jack is something special. It's not insane that a professor might be obsessive about a topic. Before I get too big for my britches, I'm a high school teacher, ride-or-die. I always thought it would be nice to teach a college course for retirement, although I'm doing very little to secure that now. But, goodness me!, the full-on nerdy otaku elements of academia are gorgeous in this movie.
There's a little corner of this movie devoted to Adam Driver and Don Cheadle as mirrors for each other. Jack is obsessed with Hitler. Not World War II necessarily, but he's not shying away from that. But the notion isn't that he's an expert on World War II. He's an expert on Hitler. And the pride that he takes on being America's foremost expert on Hitler is such a baseball bat to the audience's legs as a character choice. I don't think more about a character has been conveyed so quickly as making him an expert specifically on Hitler. Because Cheadle's Murray acts as foil to Jack, his obsession and almost desperation for status with the expertise on Elvis is equally hilarious. That scene. Guys, that scene. I hope you know what I'm talking about because I just about lost it. Yeah, it is so divorced from what actual teaching looks like. But so much is going on there telling about who these people are. The easy read of that scene where Jack is "helping" the Elvis lecture is that Jack is Hitler, enthralling the masses with his empty rhetoric about motherhood. Yeah, that's there and it's even a read I get from the movie. But the irony that I see is that Jack's greatness isn't even his own. Murray's obsession with greatness coming from an in-depth knowledge of Elvis Presley isn't even real greatness. Instead, they are riding the coattails of history. The entire first sequence is the delusion that academics have fame. They have fame in a very small pond. Hitler, as gross as he was, had fame. Infame, I guess. But still. Elvis had real fame. These guys are famous to thirty kids and a handful of adults around the world. This blog, no fame.
I love Baba. I don't think I'd love Baba if it wasn't for Jack. That's a thing. Maybe that's what Baumbach really does well. He creates characters that, in isolation, probably do nothing for me. But when interacting with others. I love the idea that Baba exists for truth-telling. If Marriage Story is Baumbach's thesis on marriage and divorce, the story between Jack and Baba carries with it the spectre of divorce and death without full on hitting me over the head with it. I don't think many marriages are shown with the same love that Jack has for Baba. Baba seems to be slipping away from Jack. The more we see of Baba, the more the tale carries a portend of infidelity behind it. Jack and Baba have been married multiple times. Neither of them seems abusive. Neither of them is the monster of a spouse that Adam Driver was in Marriage Story. But there seems to be something inevitable about Jack and Baba. I know that we're left with Jack and Baba being fine and I will even accept that there's a narrative where they die in each other's arms, painfully and irresponsibly old. (After all, they're afraid to die second.)
But in the movie, it seems like happiness is fleeting. It's the secrets and private moments that are both necessary and poisonous to what is happening. They both end up on stretchers at the end, being monitored. In that moment, their relationship is on life-support by a German nun who doesn't care. The world doesn't care about Jack and Baba. Jack needs to be a Hitler scholar who doesn't need to speak German and Baba has her movement class. That's who they are to others. Their writing is on the wall and it seems like the world could care less. It's funny, because their customized family is near perfect. It's screwy and really weird. But mostly, everyone seems happy. Usually, character quirks are reasons for characters to hate each other. Not in this case. Characters seem to treat wild personality traits as something that is not only normal, but something to be encouraged. For the audience, there is this odd relationship with people who are epitomized by their quirks. I can't get enough of it.
White Noise might be up there for one of my favorite movies for 2022. I can only use anecdotal evidence for how much people liked it. But I do hope that it gets some attention from the Academy Awards. Yeah, it's weird. But it's awesomely weird and I love it. Also, shout out for the best prop department in the business for the A&P alone.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.