Noah Baumbach's "White Noise" as Existential Comedy

Oct 21, 2023
Dimitris Passas

What begins as a comedy about an endearingly weird family is allowed to snowball into something exhilaratingly untethered from narrative expectation; after all, as Jack (Driver), a lecturer at a liberal arts university, says to his students, “all plots move deathward”.

Every stretch of time brings us closer to death, this film included, but White Noise tunes out static to land on the rare instance where existential absurdity doesn’t feel like an exercise in laughing at humanity, but with it. (White Noise: existential comedy from Noah Baumbach - The Skinny)

QUOTE: The humor in White Noise is often times random, unwarranted, and unconventional. DeLillo often uses humor as a device to lighten up otherwise serious situations in the novel. Additionally, humor is used in order to create unreal situations that actually bring attention to the supposedly mundane, but actually serious, events that are happening within the world of White Noise. (Humor - White Noise by Don DeLillo (

!!!: Like its set design, "White Noise" operates on a satirically specific, though widely undefined, plane of existential dread, begging the obvious question: are we all just wasting our time on ridiculous conformities like grocery shopping? (Review: 'White Noise' successfully adapts what has often been considered unadaptable | Seattle Refined)

A close adaptation of Don DeLillo's 1985 novel of the same name, "White Noise" is a comedy of the absurd that relishes in tight dialogue, slapstick situational humor and self-deprecation to the extreme, aiming darts at intellectual affectation and the tedium of American bourgeois society.

DeLillo's translator is film auteur director Noah Baumbach, who has made his name with indie cult films that frequently focus on familial conflict and meticulous character dissection
-QUOTE?: Baumbach strikes the essential balance of snarky realism, metaphorical fantasy and critical thinking to appease viewers prepared for a heady comedy with visual sensibilities that could be confused with a Woody Allen wise-cracking appetizer followed by a Tim Burton feast of vivid colors and caricature design.

Some might argue she is hiding in her own shell, which protects her from pain but also weeds out pleasure, an apropos metaphor for the pandemic's own shelter-in-place directives, which left many to choose solitude or fear of contracting the killer virus.

Uninterested in pleasing all audience — because certainly, the film will find its fair share of haters who despise such inflated satire.

Baumbach is a filmmaker known for a stripped-down approach, with a focus on dialogue and character that he writes himself – often with his wife and star of "White Noise," Greta Gerwig. With his latest effort, he’s upped the scale tenfold, telling a story that features ecological disasters, medical conspiracy plots and car chases. (Review: 'White Noise' balances joy, terror of indulging in life's most existential question - The Daily Gamecock at University of South Carolina)

The film is structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, of couple Jack (Adam Driver) and Babette (Gerwig) trying to reckon with the reality of impending death.

Most of these ideas are communicated primarily through metaphor and imagery. Getting on the same wavelength as Baumbach and his leads is difficult, but there is a ton of dark humor to mine from their incessant ramblings.

!!!: Some standouts of the film are Lol Crawley’s cinematography and Jess Gonchor’s production design. They give this alternate reality, 1980s world a real pop. Another highlight is the new LCD Soundsystem song featured on the soundtrack, “new body rhumba.” The song captures the feeling of joy Baumbach clearly has in delivering all these observations about the mundanity of life.

!!!: Questions like, "Why is everyone so existential about death if they are wasting their precious time on meaningless lives?" is at the core of this film, and it never really gets answered.

Illusion of choice, it’s all processed food that will affect people mostly the same as they all march towards the inevitable end. The grocery store is such a fun place to be because it’s one of the times humans feel like we have some semblance of control.

Don DeLillo's award-winning 1985 novel White Noise has been a white whale for many filmmakers since the 1980s. It's a dense, non-naturalistic satire of 80s consumer culture, academia, and apocalyptic existential dread that many critics have deemed unadaptable for the screen. (White Noise Adapts a Difficult Novel with Hilarious, Surreal Results (

The point is the fear and uncertainty just exacerbate his existential dread that was always bubbling under his façade of professorial certainty, and now his entire outlook on life is thrown into a tailspin

!!!: As a novelist, Don DeLillo writes elliptical, sometimes cryptic dialogue that nobody ever speaks in real life. This might be why the movie has been so polarizing for many reviewers and viewers.

QUOTE: The lines are like a cross between deconstructionist discourse and Harold Pinter (on DIALOGUE) (...) After a while, everything everyone says is white noise.

Baumbach replaces Spielberg's sentimentality and wonder with existential horror and Kafkaesque absurdity. It's like if you hit Spielberg in the head with a brick a few times and forced him at gunpoint to direct this story. It's an anti-sentimental look at the 1980s American family played out as an existential comedy.

It’s a funny novel that keeps shapeshifting, making the reader feel the friction between lives dominated by consumerism and consumption and technology on the one hand, and the weight of mortality on the other. (White Noise, Noah Baumbach’s new Netflix movie, explained - Vox)

Noah Baumbach’s new film adaptation of the novel is a valiant attempt to capture DeLillo’s book, but the result is a movie so faithful to the original work that it comes very close to not working.

QUOTE: Or what about the ever-present televisions? They’re everywhere in White Noise, set in an era when the internet hadn’t yet blanketed the world. “I’ve come to understand that the medium is a primal force in the American home,” Siskind tells Jack. “Sealed-off, timeless, self-contained, self-referring. It’s like a myth being born right there in our living room, like something we know in a dreamlike and preconscious way.”

QUOTE: A colleague later tells Jack that this is because “we’re suffering from brain fade. We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information.”

For the movie adaptation, Baumbach strips out a lot of the theoretical underpinnings of the novel, though they’re still there if you’re looking for them. He instead focuses on the larger existential point at the heart of the novel: that all of this white noise we’ve generated for ourselves — a drive to buy things, a fascination with catastrophes, technologies always humming in the background — is a way of distracting ourselves from the horrifying realization that we will die.

QUOTE: White Noise is about the barriers between us and reality that we’ve built to distract ourselves from our own mortality (....) even though there’s nothing to drown out anymore, we’ve become so dependent on our cultural white noise that the idea of living without it is almost unbearable. Call it the human condition or whatever you want: It’s how we deal with the ways we all stare at the ceiling, contemplating existence, hoping we will have meant something, in the end.


BOOK QUOTE: "All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers' plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children's games. We edge nearer death every time we plot".

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