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White Noise review – a Don DeLillo ventriloquist act with Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig

<span>Photograph: Wilson Webb/AP</span>
Photograph: Wilson Webb/AP

Sometimes a book that seems uniquely ill-suited to a cinema adaptation turns out to make an unexpectedly daring and inventive movie. Sometimes an “unfilmable” book is just unfilmable. Don DeLillo’s White Noise, adapted for the screen by Noah Baumbach, falls into the latter camp. It’s not so much the unwieldy structure and the disconcerting tonal swerves between chapters that prove to be a problem, although it was never going to sit entirely elegantly as a screenplay. Mainly it’s the fact that DeLillo’s voice so dominates the storytelling. This isn’t such a problem in a book, but in a film, with every character speaking in the same distinctively verbose verbal patterns, it feels more like a glorified ventriloquist act than a character-driven drama. There are tonal issues also. If a film could smirk, this one would.

Adam Driver stars as Jack Gladney, a provincial college professor whose area of expertise is “Hitler studies”. His wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), teaches exercise classes for pensioners and shares with her husband a profound fear of death. They tie themselves in knots debating who should die first, sounding like two sides of the same tiresomely neurotic internal monologue. Which is, of course, exactly what they are. The first of several story chapters is fairly uneventful; however, in the second, Jack’s existential dread takes on a visible form, a looming “airborne toxic event”. In the third, Jack discovers that his wife’s infidelity and her use of an unlisted experimental drug are linked. A closing-credits supermarket dance sequence is fresh and fun, but the rest of the picture is laboriously quirky and self-regarding.