'Rebel in the Rye'
Given his life of intense secrecy and his small yet beloved output of work, making a bio-pic about J.D. Salinger was never going to be easy. Oh sure, there are legendary stories about his early life, all of which are dutifully checked off a list here. However, not much is truly known about the man himself, and ‘Rebel in the Rye’ certainly doesn’t answer any lingering questions.
Instead, the film is just the most obvious collection of bio-pic clichés and conventions slapped with a coat of Salinger paint. No one would have hated it more than the prickly and reclusive subject, so thankfully he wasn’t around to see it.
Nicholas Hoult stars as the author, and that casting choice is one of the few things that Emmy-winning writer/director Danny Strong (‘Game Change’) gets right. Hoult portrays Salinger as a sarcastic, thoughtful, dismissive, and painfully shy young man in the early going. He’s desperate to be a writer and studies at Columbia, where magazine editor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) instantly takes him on as a protégé. The two spit barbs at each other while the older man teaches the younger man how to accept rejection and learn how voice can overwhelm story.
Salinger also has a dutiful romance with Oona O’Neil (Zoey Deutch) purely so that she can go off to have her tabloid marriage with Charlie Chaplain and check that trivia note off the list of historical tidbits Strong needs to get in. It’s all pretty dull origin-of-the-writer material where we can painfully see how bits and pieces of Salinger’s most beloved works are formed. When Burnett starts demanding that this Holden Caulfield character get a novel rather than just a short story, it’s hard not to bang your head against a wall.
Then extra drama happens! Young J.D. is sent to war for a series of awkwardly staged montages in generic woods, in which you can tell the filmmakers wish they could print a note on the screen that says, “Sorry, we couldn’t quite afford these sequences.” That leads to PTSD and writer’s block, which means scenes of shaking hands unable to scratch words on a page, or Salinger tossing a pencil against a wall in frustration even though he’s sitting at a typewriter. Eventually, he finishes ‘Catcher in the Rye’. It’s hailed as a masterpiece by the smart characters in the film and dismissed by the dumb ones. It’s successful, Salinger becomes a recluse, yadda yadda yadda… The movie is essentially a Wikipedia page brought to life with a mid-level budget.
Obviously, there’s a place for bio-pics like this. It will help kids out with book reports on Salinger or ‘Catcher in the Rye’ by simplifying the complexities of the novel and the man down to bite-size morsels. There’s a certain middlebrow charm to the whole thing. Production values are decent aside from the war scenes. Hoult is damn good no matter what melodrama is thrown his way and Spacey proves to be an amusing sparring partner for two wordy men mouthing off about words. A certain simple satisfaction can be had in seeing all of the most widely known anecdotes and legends about Salinger thrust onto the screen in an order that suggests a plot (even the infamous high school newspaper interview snafu). Casual readers and those who like to feel smart when they recognize a fact repeated to them will get their kicks.
The material should have been so much more. Salinger was a massively influential artist and a fascinatingly troubled man who deserves more than this dime store psychology reading (even if a variation of that term is flashed in the movie in a brief moment of self-aware humor). Likewise, there’s still yet to be a ‘Catcher in the Rye’ film, and seeing moments of the book hinted at in brief images here proves painful in such a mediocre package.
‘Rebel in the Rye’ is not a horrendous movie, but given the material and artist at hand, its mediocrities are frustrating enough to feel like failure. This is ultimately a little blip that will disappear so it’s not worth getting too frustrated about. It’s just a shame to see Salinger get treated like the phony he wasn’t.