All Quiet on the ‘White Noise’ Front: 5 Reasons Why Noah Baumbach’s Film Is Struggling to Build Oscars Buzz

“White Noise” might be the quietest high-profile Oscar hopeful in the last decade: The Netflix film from Noah Baumbach, a two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter whose last film was nominated for best picture, boasts a cast that includes Adam Driver and a 89% score on Rotten Tomatoes. However, buzz is strangely muted for the first film ever to serve as the opening night movie of the Venice and New York Film Festivals.  But why?

“Unfilmable” source material

That likely begins with the source material. Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s whimsical novel revolves around Jack Gladney (Driver), a professor of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. He lives with his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) and their four children, but when an “Airborne Toxic Event” takes place in their community, the family must grapple with the universal mysteries of love and death.  

During his introductory remarks at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on Sept. 30, Baumbach joked about the book’s “unfilmable” reputation. The writer-director is a longtime staple of the festival, with “White Noise” marking his eighth film there.

His others have included: “Kicking and Screaming” (1995), “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), “Margot at the Wedding” (2007), “Frances Ha” (2012), “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) and “Marriage Story” (2019), which was the centerpiece selection. His film “While We’re Young” (2014) was a “surprise” secret screening at the 52nd NYFF.  

It could struggle with mass audiences and industry voters at large

“White Noise” evokes Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” (2014) with a touch of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983) and any Wes Anderson mid-career joint.

There seem to be two key demographics for “White Noise” – intellectual cinephiles and film students that will call this generation’s quintessential college-defining movie like “The Boondock Saints” (1999).  And that seems to be its main hurdle.

Undoubtedly the largest-scale movie Baumbach’s constructed, dipping between varying genres, perhaps too much in fact. Netflix will need to focus on getting industry voters to watch it on the big screen, while also selling it for mass audience appeal, both of which may be difficult.

Technical categories are in play, but major ones could be difficult.

With star Driver in the lead role, the two-time Oscar nominee of “BlacKkKlansman” (2018) and “Marriage Story” (2019) has climbed the ranks of one of our most versatile actors working today. While he has the respect of his colleagues, the contenders in his category will simply be too buzzy to overcome.

Greta Gerwig, who’s built Hollywood credit with her two Oscar-nominated directorial features, “Lady Bird” (2017) and “Little Women” (2019), steps back in front of the camera as an actor, her first since her snubbed turn in Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” (2016). Playing the wife and mother Babette, whose elusive state becomes entangled in the narrative’s mysteries, Gerwig gets key moments to shine, notably with an engaging and emotional monologue in the film’s second half. Netflix confirms exclusively to Variety, she will be submitted for supporting actress consideration during awards season. With a seemingly open race still unfolding, perhaps the streamer can find some traction with her.

It features gorgeous set pieces from two-time Oscar-nominated production designer Jess Gonchor (2010’s “True Grit” and 2016’s “Hail, Caesar!”) and Emmy nominated set decorator Claire Kaufman (“American Horror Story”), alongside the ‘80s era threads by legendary costume designer Ann Roth, who currently holds the record of the oldest woman ever to win a competitive Oscar for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020).

Another lively and grandiose music composition from four-time nominee Danny Elfman and an original song, “New Body Rhumba” from LCD Soundsystem, bookends the tale, which features a fun and unexpected musical-dance sequence that may go down with “You Make My Dreams” from “(500) Days of Summer” (2009) and “Aquarius” from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005) as the most memorable in recent memory. Elfman has been a cinephile favorite in the world of composers, assembling four Oscar noms throughout his career — “Good Will Hunting” (1997), “Men in Black” (1997), “Big Fish” (2003) and “Milk” (2008) — with no statuette yet to be won. An overdue narrative could do wonders for him, similar to Ennio Morricone’s winning run for “The Hateful Eight” (2015), despite the film missing out on key noms.

To see the ranked predictions for each individual category, visit Variety’s Oscars Hub.

Were Venice and NYFF the best festivals to premiere it?

Even after making history as the first film ever to be named the opening night selection at the Venice and New York Film Festivals, the buzz has been strangely muted. A tepid 150-second standing ovation kicked off in Italy but quickly went to the backburner after Brendan Fraser’s viral moment after “The Whale” and the “Don’t Worry Darling” controversies dominated the headlines.

During his turn at the microphone at NYFF, artistic director Dennis Lim paid tribute to another filmmaker with an even longer NYFF resume: French auteur Jean-Luc Godard, who died in September at the age of 91. More than 25 of his films screened at the festival, and his last film, “Image Book” (2018), will be playing for free, on a loop schedule for the festival’s first week.

The renowned East Coast fest, celebrating its 60th anniversary, is going through an evolution and looking to cement its place in the world of must-stops for Oscar hopefuls and dynamic filmmakers amid a leadership turnover; executive director Eugene Hernandez is departing to head the Sundance Film Festival. In his opening night remarks, Lim said, “White Noise” captures the spirit of the festival at this moment.

Their long track records at NYFF point to a potential problem that has yet to be addressed, which is a constant return to the same well of directors. As the Hollywood industry crawls, even is arguably dragged towards progress, one would argue that NYFF, and the overall state of film criticism, is not open enough to new, dynamic voices.

Over the last decade, NYFF opening night films have come from the likes of Joel Coen (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”), Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”), Richard Linklater (“Last Flag Flying”) and Ang Lee (“Life of Pi”), all of which have played the fest multiple times.

Netflix simply has better options

Netflix is still confident about its awards prospects, and to be honest, they should be. Look for it to get embraced by the Golden Globes when they return in January, and with a seemingly light adapted screenplay race, Baumbach could find his way into the Oscar discussion.

The streamer’s most accessible contender is “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Story” from Rian Johnson, which played like gangbusters at Toronto. Despite very mixed reviews and a 22-minute shorter cut, “Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths)” from Alejandro González Iñárritu might be more likely given his past track record with the Academy.

“White Noise” is produced by Baumbach and Uri Singer, and also stars Don Cheadle, Jodie Turner-Smith, André Benjamin, Raffey Cassidy, May Nivola and Sam Nivola, children of the great character actor Alessandro Nivola.  

It will open in theaters on Nov. 25 before dropping on Netflix on Dec. 30. 

2023 Academy Awards Predictions

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