In the techie ghost story "White Noise," Michael Keaton plays Jonathan Rivers, an architect whose perfect life is disrupted when his wife, Anna (Chandra West), a "bestselling writer" of "international renown" and preternatural hotness, disappears. Though, should any actual bestselling writers of international renown happen to wander into the audience during the movie's early scenes by mistake, they might be dismayed at the sight of Anna swanning around the master suite of her suburban McMansion in a lacy lilac half-slip girlishly clutching a positive pregnancy test to her bosom. Anyway, such is their love and reliance on state-of-the-art communication equipment that soon after her death, Anna starts trying to touch base with her husband from beyond the grave. Before that happens, however, director Geoffrey Sax and screenwriter Niall Johnson treat us to the full measure of their up-market connubial bliss, presumably on the assumption that their surfeit of contentment will make Jonathan's loss seem that much sadder.
Fat chance. "White Noise" begins as an overlit paean to trophy-wifedom and "lifestyle" living, then practically gets down on its knees and begs to be called "a stylish thriller." The movie straitjackets Keaton into a humorless, table-pounding role, preferring to let his real estate holdings, art collection and quietly expensive clothes do the talking. Before Anna's disappearance, the family inhabited a universe of such plastic perfection one could be forgiven for thinking Sax actually wants the audience to wish them ill — which would have been a far more interesting gambit than the one he actually goes for. In the place of recognizable humans, we get Anna, the kind of writer whose milky mug commands a full-page author photo on the back jacket of her new book; Jonathan, the kind of architect who walks very fast through his epically hip "raw" office space; and Mike (Nicholas Elia), the son, shunted between his mother Jane's (Sarah Strange) house and his father's cul-de-sac fantasy land (which not for nothing has white lilies embossed on the glass door), whose life seems to consist entirely of being cute, perspicacious and placidly undemanding. The Riverses plainly "have it all" — except, notably, decent reception — if "having it all" means living as though life were the joint marketing venture of Design Within Reach, the Sharper Image and a consortium of Beverly Hills plastic surgeons. All this, and they want sympathy too?
Into this imagineered idyll bursts an unwelcome and frankly startling (considering the eerily indefectible surroundings) imperfection: the sick-making crackle of static. For all of their advanced gadgetry, the Riverses possess at least two Stone Age implements — a kitchen boom-box and an old-fashioned answering machine. From the movie's first moments, the machines snap and buzz with impending wickedness and migraine, starting off mildly and becoming increasingly demonic as Jonathan refashions himself into a 21st century ghost-buster. The static, as it turns out, is not cellphone tower interference but "messages from the other side," a notion Jonathan is first introduced to by Raymond Price (Ian McNeice), a lurking fat man who claims Anna has been trying to contact him.
As Raymond explains it, he is not a medium or a psychic; he's merely a recorder of EVP (electronic voice phenomena), a TiVo of the dead, as it were. In other words, all that phone static may be caused not by sudden jolts of dirty electricity but by spectral broadcasts from the beyond.
At first, Jonathan dismisses him as a weirdo, but after a cellphone, a light bulb and an elevator collude to freak him out, he moves into a loft and high-tails it to Raymond's place. But it's bad news for Jonathan, who, obsessed with recording and remixing messages from his dead wife, which sound like a bad connection with Linda Blair, slowly evolves from a skeptical professional type into a sort of DJ Spooky Spook.
Eager to balance the fear factor with scientific credibility, "White Noise" begins on a pedagogical note, quoting Einstein and Edison, and ends on a postscript that says that one in 12 documented cases of EVP are "overtly threatening." This is a relief, considering that otherwise Keaton might have spent the bulk of the movie cuddled up with a 19-inch Sony flat screen. At Raymond's, Jonathan meets a bookstore owner named Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), who has also loved, lost and communicated with the dead. Unger's exotic looks and unperturbable mien would make her a natural for this kind of story, if only she had anything more interesting to do than play the share-your-pain blond sidekick. A more exciting, if silly, acquaintance is made when, also at Raymond's, Jonathan meets a trio of slim, tall, bald and extremely angry spectral figures (imagine the Blue Man Group in hell) who start with threats and soon move on to bigger things. "We have some very bad people out there" who "like the damage," Raymond explains. These Three Enemigos of "White Noise" are well beyond not nice, though, and in their zeal for evil they wind up altering the basic premise of the movie until it morphs into something else altogether.
Despite warnings from a blind medium who accuses Jonathan of "meddling" in things he doesn't understand (he's not the only one — "White Noise" is a mess of red herring), Jonathan eventually combines forces with Sarah to form a Scooby-Doo-style people-helping team. Thanks to Anna's spectral APBs, Jonathan is able to rush to the aid of women in peril as the movie's loose threads flap in his wake, and the auditory jolts keep coming right up until the illogical, tacked-on, super-violent end. With its haunted television sets, waltzing cameras and fancy digs, "White Noise" suggests nothing so much as a soulless remake of "Poltergeist," ("Yuppiegeist"?), albeit one that wouldn't really be scary at all with the sound turned off. Perhaps the scariest things about it are how hard it tries to be cool and how fundamentally it equates cool with possessing the right stuff.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and language
Times guidelines: Standard scary movie shocks, plus one scene of disturbing violence
Michael Keaton...Jonathan Rivers
Chandra West...Anna Rivers
Deborah Kara Unger...Sarah Tate
Ian McNeice...Raymond Price
Universal Studios and Gold Circle Films present a White Noise UK and Brightlight Pictures production, in association with Endgame Entertainment, released by Universal Studios. Director Geoffrey Sax. Producer Shawn Williamson, Paul Brooks. Executive producers Norm Waitt, Scott Niemeyer, Stephen Hegyes, Simon Brooks. Screenplay by Niall Johnson. Cinematographer Chris Seager. Editor Nick Arthurs. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. In general release.