The 60th New York Film Festival kicked off Friday night with the North American premiere of the film that previously opened the Venice Film Festival, Noah Baumbachadaptation of Don DeLilloThe allegedly ‘unadaptable’ 1985 novel White noise.
The satire on existential angst, which features Baumbach’s two most frequent muses, Adam Driver (Frances Ha, When we were young, The Meyerowitz stories, Marriage story) and Greta Gerwig (Greenberg, Frances Ha, Mistress America), was warmly welcomed during its press and public screenings. (It’s currently 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.) And in a year when the Oscar race seems wide open, Netflix – which was behind the opening night movie and Tavern on the Green after-party for the second time, three years later The Irishmanwith co-CEO Ted Sarandos on hand for the festivities — hope there might be a path to recognition for an unconventional project that reportedly cost the streamer nearly $100 million.
White noise is set in a 1980s college town where the Gladney family – consisting of husband Jack (Driver), wife Babette (Gerwig) and a collection of precocious children from their respective multiple previous marriages – live a life pretty happy…until, that is, a nearby train derailment results in an “airborne toxic event” that sends them fleeing and forces them to face their mortality even more than usual.
The film is full of dry humor and sight gags, like Driver sporting a wig that raises his forehead and a conspicuous paunch, and its story features topics that are Baumbach’s old favorites: college, pretentiousness, neuroticism and the list continues. Tonally it’s all over the place – one sequence conjures up memories of National Lampoon’s Holidaywhile other scenes look like classics Woody Allen Where Wes Anderson – although it is, I am told, a faithful reflection of DeLillo’s novel.
And while White noise feels, at 136 minutes, far too long (like so many 2022 awards hopefuls), it has enough winning moments to make it worthwhile, starting with a hilarious exchange in which Jack, a professor “Hitler Studies”, and a colleague (Don Cheadle), engaging in dueling monologues emphasizing the similarities between Hitler and Elvis; to an end-credits sequence that serves as a sort of exit from the heaviness of what came before it (and takes place to the tune of “New Body Rhumba”, a catchy original song from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy).
The film – which will get a limited theatrical release in November before dropping on Netflix on December 30 – won’t make the same kind of Oscar bump as Baumbach’s latest Netflix film, Marriage story, did (six nominations, one of which ended in victory). But that can’t be counted when it comes to categories like Adapted Screenplay, Original Song, Original Score (Danny Elfman) and production design.