At first glance, White Noise looks like one more supernatural thriller aimed at an audience easily scared and easily parted from its hard-earned cash. It will be lumped in among the Rings, Grudges, Otherses, and other gotcha creepshows inhabited by rancorous ghosts and pissed-off ghouls out to off those who done ’em wrong when they were still corporeal beings. But in an effort to be more, well, meaningful, White Noise deals with something called Electronic Voice Phenomenon, whose hobbyists believe they can communicate with the dead through untuned radios and television sets. In the static, EVPers insist, there’s life after death, or maybe just an episode of Reba. (Remember trying to tune in porn on your folks’ TV set, pre-cable? It’s kinda like that.) The makers of White Noise, among them director Geoffrey Sax (ex of BBC dramas) and writer Niall Johnson (whose sole credit is a wife-swapping drama), believe that by latching onto something with a real-life following — and EVPers are true believers, which must save them a fortune on satellite or cable bills, since their programs are beamed in gratis from purgatory — they can jump-start a craze while simultaneously riding its fringes.
The movie, starring Michael Keaton as Jonathan Rivers, a widower whose late missus is reaching out from the Great Beyond, is unlikely to convert nonbelievers. It’s January junk food and nothing more, a studio’s leftovers set out after the December buffet has been picked clean. There’s nothing at all scary about White Noise, which goes bump in the night so often it’s easy to mistake it for clumsy. And it doesn’t make a lick of sense, either: Jonathan doesn’t hear or see just dead people on his TV screen, but live people too, right before they meet their maker. EVP, ESP — what’s the difference among friends? It’s hard to buy either way. And what’s the deal with those three shadowy figures who seem to be killing people trying to contact the dead, and who happen to appear on monitors and in the background whenever Jonathan isn’t paying attention? Are they friendly ghosts? Vengeful demons? Moe, Larry, and Curly?
In the interest of keeping things interesting, White Noise is notable for returning the woefully underused Michael Keaton to the big screen for the first time since 2000’s British football movie A Shot at Glory, which barely opened at all and followed 1998’s Jack Frost, starring Keaton as a rocker reincarnated as a snowman, which, despite its repeated screenings on cable, still doesn’t sound like it was a real movie. (This doesn’t count his appearance as the US president in last year’s First Daughter, which was released straight to American Airlines.) White Noise doesn’t allow Keaton to do what he does best — roil beneath the straight man’s surface, the perpetual calm before the unending storm — but at least he gives us a familiar, affable figure to whom we can attach ourselves during this glum trip down a (pardon) dead end.
The guy always has been affable, even when playing venal (Pacific Heights, say), and he has proven he can make insanity funny (The Dream Team) and gritty (Desperate Measures, in which he’s better than the dopey movie). Here he isn’t asked to do much of anything except lose himself in grief and mopey madness. He spends long stretches staring at static-filled screens or listening, over and over, to garbled messages from the dead that only he understands. But the presence of Keaton allows the most forgiving filmgoer to view White Noise not as a supernatural thriller, but as a sort of comic-book movie to be taken lightly — as something silly only pretending to be somber, as two-dimensional entertainment framed like panels on a page. When viewed through that lens, White Noise plays like Batman shed of cape and cowl, or a variation on a theme worked over in Unbreakable, in which an ordinary man discovers through extraordinary circumstances that he is meant to be a superhero in a world of average men.
There are odd allusions to Batman: Jonathan turns his modernist apartment into a sort of Batcave, with myriad monitors on which he can watch for signs from his late wife (Chandra West); he takes on a partner, played by Deborah Kara Unger, sort of his would-be Robin; and, like Bruce Wayne, Jonathan is driven by the death of a loved one. And, like Bruce Willis’ reluctant hero in Unbreakable, Jonathan discovers he has the power to rescue the doomed, rushing to car accidents and abandoned warehouses glimpsed on the monitors, where missing women and injured children await discovery. Keaton, who abandoned the superhero’s latex pajamas before the franchise turned as cheesy as a kids’-plate sandwich, returns this time without the disguise, barreling down damp and dark corridors not in a Batmobile, but a Ford Expedition, which is close enough.