‘White Noise’ adaptation plays like three movies, two of them great

Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig a wondrous couple in social satire that starts strong but loses steam.

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Jack (Adam Driver, left) and wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) chat with Murray (Don Cheadle) in “White Noise.”

Netflix

Let’s start at the end of Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise,” and a closing credits sequence featuring virtually every member of the cast and a host of extras dancing with precision and great joy in an A&P grocery store to the infectious sounds of LCD Soundsystem’s “New Body Rhumba.” It’s an exhilarating and quite bonkers set piece and one of my favorite movie moments of 2022.

Now then. The movie.

Writer-director Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Marriage Story”) delivers an effectively unsettling, carefully crafted, at times brilliant but uneven adaptation of Don DeLillo’s postmodern dystopian classic from 1985, with Baumbach regulars Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig leading an outstanding cast in a three-pronged social satire. Even though “White Noise” is set in that mid-1980s time period, the commentary on the constant flood of information assaulting our senses; a widespread dependency on pharmaceuticals to help us get through the day; our collective fascination with pop culture icons, historical villains and conspiracy theories, and rampant consumerism, among other subjects, rings true today.

‘White Noise’

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Netflix presents a film written and directed by Noah Baumbach, based on the novel by Don DeLillo. Rated R (for brief violence and language). Running time: 129 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre and Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park, and streams on Netflix starting Dec. 30.

Baumbach adheres to the novel’s three-part structure, essentially giving us three movies for the price of one. In the opening third of the film, we meet Adam Driver’s Jack Gladney, who is slightly paunchy, usually wears tinted sunglasses and is married to Greta Gerwig’s Babette, who sports a cascade of tight blonde curls. It’s the fourth union for each. Their bustling and happy home in a college town in Ohio includes three children from previous marriages — Denise (Raffey Cassidy), Heinrich (Sam Nivola) and Steffie (May Nivola, real-life sibling of Sam) — and their own child, the toddler Wilder (played by twins Dean and Henry Moore).

Jack is a revered professor of Hitler studies at a liberal arts school called College-on-the-Hill, where he wears a teacher’s gown and swoops about like he’s Batman, while Babette teaches exercise and posture classes to seniors while surreptitiously popping a mysterious white pill known as Dylar to help her get through the days and weeks. This opening section is mostly a character study, with some marvelous set pieces, e.g., when Jack and Don Cheadle’s Professor Murray Siskind engage in a duet of sorts as Jack waxes on about the importance of Hitler’s relationship with his mother while Murray does the same in discussing Elvis and HIS mom.

And then, BOOM! A truck crashes into a train on the outskirts of town, unleashing an “Airborne Toxic Event” in the form of a monstrous and humongous black cloud. Authorities order everyone to evacuate, and suddenly we’re plunged into a 1980s disaster movie with distinctly Speilbergian tones, as the Gladneys desperately seek shelter in their wood-paneled station wagon. (A highlight is when they somehow find themselves floating down the river in the car, with Jack steering it like a boat, until they miraculously rejoin the line of vehicles leaving town. It’s as if the Gladney family has morphed into an analytical and intellectual version of the Griswolds of “Vacation” fame.)

Alas, “White Noise” loses some steam in the final act, which focuses on Babette’s addiction to that white pill, which turns out to be illegal and quite dangerous, and Jack’s reaction when he finally learns the truth about why Babette has agreed to take this experimental drug, and the lengths to which she has gone to procure it. (There ARE some moments of choice wordplay, as when Babette talks of a “watermark” occurrence, and Jack can’t help but correct her and say she means either “watershed” or “landmark,” not “watermark.”) The domestic melodrama, the talk of fearing death, a hotel room encounter with a nefarious character, etc., etc. — none of it has the zest and eccentric charms of the first two-thirds of the movie. It’s occasionally involving but increasingly tedious.

Still, there’s a nifty ending that brings us back to the stuff we most enjoyed, and let’s not forget the closing credits sequence in the A&P! Throughout the film, cinematographer Lol Crawley’s camera glides as smoothly as a champion skater on gleaming ice as the stellar cast deftly handles the smart, self-aware, rapid-fire dialogue. Another delight is the production design, from the cars and fashions of the 1980s to the almost reverential shots of everything from cans of Pringles to bags of Doritos to boxes of Lucky Charms to a Panasonic clock radio. Driver and Gerwig are wondrous together, and the young actors playing their children doing a marvelous job of helping to create an authentic, whip-smart version of “The Brady Bunch.” Even with a black cloud literally chasing this family and much talk of the inevitability of death, “White Noise” has a weirdly optimistic side as well.

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