"Noise" is a weird, crazy, grabby little movie that thinks big thoughts. A comedy of ideas written and directed by Henry Bean ("The Believer"), it stars a hilarious and hefty (in a good way, his self-assured charisma is infinitely expanding) Tim Robbins as a New York bourgeois who, radicalized by the suffering caused him by the ear-splitting din of the city, transforms himself into a self-styled noise-vigilante called "The Rectifier."
Though you'd never guess it, "Noise" has autobiographical roots. Like Robbins' fictional David Owen, Bean lives in Manhattan and found himself going out one night to break into a car and turn off its alarm. Bean wound up getting arrested, appearing before a judge and not repeating the experience. David, on the other hand, becomes compulsive. He gets arrested, appears before an initially amused but ultimately unsympathetic judge, spends a night in jail and then goes out and does it again.
Nobody seems to share David's outrage for what he believes is a daily assault on his senses, compounded by the utter indifference of city officials and the unfair influence of car alarm manufacturers. Never mind that everybody suffers, or that the cops, addressing the camera, assure us that a car alarm has never prevented a single car theft in New York City. Not even David's wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), a beautiful but dull and conformist cellist, understands why he doesn't just learn to ignore the noise or block it out. Her life, with its impossibly spacious Manhattan town house and cultivated, nonlucrative career, is perfect as it is. And this perfection is at least partly dependent on her ability to shut out any unpleasantness.
At first, David tries to restrain himself. He refines his protest by trying to take repeat offenders to small claims court. But he keeps losing, the car alarms keep blaring and ultimately he can't resist the siren call to vigilante action. (David is reading "The Odyssey" to his young daughter Chris, played by Gabrielle Brennan, who asks him if police and ambulance sirens aren't named after the mythological creatures whose alluring songs caused sailors to crash against the rocks. It's a good question.)
Radicalized by his personal loss and misfortune (having come from a lofty place where he could have remained oblivious to the inescapable troubles of others), David is somewhat reminiscent of what Sherman McCoy becomes at the end of Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities." But Bean has more affection for David than Wolfe ever had for the long-suffering Sherman and ultimately aligns him with radical converts like Che Guevara and Buddha. David's initial catalyst for action is the rage his powerlessness causes him. It's his powerlessness that allows him to empathize with fellow sufferers and his empathy that eggs him on, so you can't help but root for him when he dances on cars, baseball bat swinging.
It's not until David's life changes radically that he becomes political. Calling himself "The Rectifier," he starts leaving calling card stickers and letters printed on official "Rectifier" letterhead explaining why he has smashed a car window and clipped the battery wire. When he meets the beautiful young philosophy student Ekaterina Filippovna (Margarita Levieva), he happily lets himself be coached in grass-roots political activism. David and Ekaterina's foil is the fatuous and preening Mayor Schneer (a sublimely horrible William Hurt), who can't stand the idea that a citizen of the city would take it upon himself to change things and succeed -- no matter what his popular support. Hurt plays him with the arch flamboyance of a supervillain (a pre-Heath Ledger Joker, say), with dyed red hair and frozen eyes.
Meanwhile, Robbins plays David with the self-assurance that there's no combination sexier than smart, funny and self-righteously angry. How can you resist a hero who gets worked up because a car alarm disrupts his extremely tenuous grasp on a difficult but life altering passage of Hegel?
"Noise." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour and 33 minutes. In limited release.