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Tune out ‘White Noise’

Michael Keaton stars as a man who hears supernatural sounds. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

White noise is intended to help you fall asleep. “White Noise” would never let you do that, though.

It’s far too interested in a cacophony of cheap scares: otherworldly screeches, deafening bursts from the radio and a nearly nonstop, buzzing din of television snow.

The title sequence, a harbinger of things to come, is one of those seizure-inducing, don’t-adjust-your-TV-set montages of blips and blasts and zig-zaggy lines, possibly in preparation for the movie’s arrival on cable, which should be happening right ... about ... now.

Michael Keaton stars as the recipient of these supernatural sounds after his wife, Anna (Chandra West) — who has to be the hottest internationally renowned best-selling author, like, ever — dies in a mysterious accident.

Keaton’s character, architect Jonathan Rivers, had just learned that Anna was pregnant, and the couple already shared a fabulously comfortable waterfront existence with their young son.

Then Anna disappears and is replaced by sudden sounds, like the piercing ring of a cell phone and an indecipherable answering machine message. Soon afterward a portly man named Raymond (Ian McNeice) shows up at Jonathan’s office and insists that Anna has been trying to communicate with him through the television.

Jonathan is naturally skeptical. His wife was a writer, not a broadcaster. How did she learn to master the airwaves from the great beyond? (And if she really wanted to be heard clearly, couldn’t she have reached out using high-definition TV?)

That’s a totally great question, one that the film’s production notes try to answer in tremendous detail. Supposedly this electronic voice phenomena (or EVP) is a real thing that has inspired Web sites and organizations worldwide. You will be forgiven, however, if not outright applauded, for thinking this is nonsense.

After hearing Anna’s voice at Raymond’s audiovisual tech-geek lab, though, Jonathan not only becomes a believer, he becomes obsessed. He sits around the house all day in a robe, like Keaton’s “Mr. Mom” character, recording hours of TV snow. Ultimately he gets that crazed look in his eyes, like the one Keaton used to such great comic effect in “Beetlejuice,” only here he’s unintentionally funny.

And for some strange reason, the script from Niall Johnson has Jonathan sending his son away to live with other grown-ups in order to spend more time sitting in front of the television. Shouldn’t they, um, be together to comfort each other after experiencing the hugely traumatic event of Anna’s death?

The kid probably would have been bored, anyway. “White Noise” is as tedious and repetitive as it sounds. Every once in a while, though, three shadowy figures show up on the screen — sort of a troika of doom and gloom — with cryptically menacing messages which invariably are followed by someone’s death.

In his muddled quest to play superhero, Jonathan tries to save these people from the evildoers’ wrath (including a new friend, played by Deborah Kara Unger, who also hears dead people), which leads him to such contrived scary places as a deserted road in the middle of the night and an abandoned warehouse in the pouring rain. He’s Batman — again — only without the cape and the cool car.

Director Geoffrey Sax seems to want to embrace the romantic idea of reaching out to a long-lost loved one — who wouldn’t want to talk to a deceased parent or spouse one last time? — yet he can’t seem to resist going for the easy, gimmicky scares.

Besides, we’ve already seen this paranormal territory covered more effectively in the unusually successful American remake of “The Ring” and, long before that, in the truly scary “Poltergeist.”