The 60th New York Film Festival kicked off Friday night with the North American premiere of the film that had previously opened the Venice Film Festival, Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s allegedly “unadaptable” 1985 novel White Noise.
The satire about existential angst, which stars Baumbach’s two most frequent muses, Adam Driver (Frances Ha, While We’re Young, The Meyerowitz Stories, Marriage Story) and Greta Gerwig (Greenberg, Frances Ha, Mistress America), was warmly received at both its press and public screenings. (It’s currently at 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.) And in a year in which the Oscar race seems wide open, Netflix — which was behind the opening night film and Tavern on the Green after-party for the second time, three years after The Irishman, with co-CEO Ted Sarandos on hand for the festivities — hopes that there may be a path to recognition for an unconventional project that is rumored to have cost the streamer nearly $100 million.
White Noise is set in a 1980s college town where the Gladney family — comprised of husband Jack (Driver), wife Babette (Gerwig) and a collection of precocious children from their respective multiple prior marriages — enjoy a rather happy life … until, that is, a nearby train derailment results in an “airborne toxic event” that sends them fleeing and forces them to confront their mortality even more than usual.
The film is jam-packed with dry humor and sight gags, like Driver sporting a forehead-raising wig and a notable paunch, and its story features subjects which are old favorites of Baumbach’s: academia, pretentiousness, neuroticism and the list goes on. Tonally, it’s a bit all over the place — one sequence evokes memories of National Lampoon’s Vacation, while other scenes feel like classic Woody Allen or Wes Anderson — although this is, I’m told, an accurate reflection of DeLillo’s novel.
And while White Noise feels, at 136 minutes, way too long (like so many 2022 awards hopefuls), it has enough winning moments to make it worthwhile, from a hilarious exchange in which Jack, a “Hitler Studies” professor, and a colleague (Don Cheadle), engage in dueling monologues highlighting similarities between Hitler and Elvis; to an end-credits sequence that serves as something of a release after the heaviness of what leads up to it (and unfolds to the tune of “New Body Rhumba,” a catchy original song by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy).
The film — which will receive a limited theatrical release in November before dropping on Netflix on Dec. 30 — won’t make the same sort of Oscar dent that Baumbach’s last Netflix film, Marriage Story, did (six nominations, one of which resulted in a win). But it cannot be counted out when it comes to categories like adapted screenplay, original song, original score (Danny Elfman) and production design.