It’s award consideration season, so here’s my consideration.
Won’t anyone pay attention to what’s really happening?
I don’t know what’s really happening. The film has a very distinct three act structure that would have been better suited as vignettes. The first act introduces Professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), an expert in Adolf Hitler studies. We also meet his family and a few coworkers, including Professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) who is an expert in the subject of Elvis Presley. The second act features the Gladney family evacuating town (with everyone else) after a train crash releases a toxic cloud. Act two has nothing to do with Hitler or Elvis. The final act brings the Gladney’s back home where Jack confronts wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) about her drug use and infidelity. This also has nothing to do with Hitler or Elvis, nor anything to do with the toxic cloud release. To be fair, there are themes running across all three acts, notably fear of death, rank consumerism distracting from life, and hyper-specific college specialties. The problem is neither the themes nor the acts play well together, often clashing with each other for our attention. At one point, a random character will rant that “nobody is paying attention to what’s really happening,” but all we can do is shrug because nothing really is happening. That might be the point of the movie…unless it isn’t the point of the movie.
With no plot to speak of, the film leans heavily on dialogue to fill its runtime. Driver and Gerwig shoulder the vast bulk of that dialogue, delivering their lines in a singsong, poetic cadence and tone reminiscent of Shakespeare. That is not a compliment. It could very easily be intentional, meant to add to the other distractions showcased in the film. Unfortunately, it serves to suffocate the emotions those lines are meant to convey while casting the fear-of-death theme in an almost whimsical light. In fact, all of the actors deliver the same performance, turning them into the same cardboard cutout wearing slightly different clothes.
Noah Baumbach serves as writer and director and neither was done particularly well. Clearly, Baumbach is to blame for the confusing performances, as well as the film failing to develop a plot or coalesce around a single theme. Thirty minutes into the film, I was bored, but stuck with it on the promise of the toxic airborne event being something worth waiting for; a catalyst to the plot. The third act abandoned it altogether, proving that it was not worth it.
Yet another theme present throughout the entire movie was film cliches. Great pains were taken to include as many as possible and were fun in the vein of a game of I Spy. Danny Elfmans’ score was also well done, providing the only noticeable emotional cues. Sadly, neither element saved the film from itself.
Baumbach adapted the screenplay from a book of the same title by Don DeLillo and failed to sell any of the themes lifted from the book’s pages. Elfman might get nominated for the music, but he’s the lone standout in this misfire of a film.