Kernel Rating (out of 5): (3 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 109 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This biopic of the reclusive American author J. D. Salinger focuses on his early struggles, time serving during World War II, and life after the publication of the classic novel ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ The film focuses on some of his family strife, including his harsh relationships with his father and sister, as well as his romantic relationships, with some subtle acknowledgment of his problematic habit of being interested in teenage women. Characters drink and smoke cigarettes; there are scenes from World War II, including battlefield warfare, explosions, and dead bodies; and a few scenes are set in a veteran’s hospital, with soldiers traumatized and injured after WWII.
J. D. Salinger’s life gets the biopic treatment with ‘Rebel in the Rye,’ which traces his early writing career to his later reclusiveness. Nicholas Hoult leads a stacked cast, but the movie doesn’t reveal much that isn’t already known about the legendary writer.
By Roxana Hadadi
No one wrote like J. D. Salinger—and no one rejected fame quite like him either, except for perhaps Harper Lee. Both Salinger and Lee produced American masterworks and high school reading-list mainstays in “Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” respectively, but famously (or really, infamously) chose to walk away from publishing.
We haven’t had a Harper Lee biopic quite yet, but “Rebel in the Rye” is about the man who created Holden Caulfield, and examines Salinger’s life from his early sarcasm and laziness to his later reclusiveness and paranoia. It’s a well-crafted film with a fantastically experienced cast, but like so many well-intentioned but somewhat forgettable biopics, it sands down the edges of Salinger’s life. And if you lessen the intensity of Salinger’s pain and obsessiveness, of his cruelty to those who loved him and his strange, recurring relationships with very young women, are you really capturing his essence at all?
The film from writer and director Danny Strong (working off the biography “J. D. Salinger: A Life” by Kenneth Slawenski) stars Nicholas Hoult (of “X-Men: Apocalypse”) as Salinger, and begins with a format similar to the film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby”: setting the stage in the middle of the narrative action before jumping backward to the protagonist’s younger years. So while the film opens with Salinger in a hospital proclaiming “I regret to inform you that Holden Caulfield is dead,” it almost immediately steps back in time six years earlier to Salinger’s early adulthood in 1939, when he’s spending his nights getting drunk in clubs, sparring with his unsympathetic father about his future, and working on manuscripts that his encouraging mother devotedly reads.
“I’ve always found fiction so much more truthful than reality, and yes, I’m aware of the irony,” Salinger says, but he hasn’t yet been published, he’s been kicked out of practically every school in which he’s been enrolled, and his father is aghast when Salinger announces his decision to study creative writing at Columbia University. What could possibly go differently this time?
Enter professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey, of “Horrible Bosses”), who combats Salinger’s cutting rudeness on the first day of class by bringing up his application essay and noting that in it, Salinger “failed to turn that clever voice of his into an actual narrative, which is a shame, because there is some potential there”—shocking Salinger into silence. Soon Burnett is serving as Salinger’s mentor, encouraging him to submit for publication in various magazines (“Explore what it is that makes you angry, and then put that into a story”) but noting that rejection is the way of life for a writer. Can Salinger handle that—personally in his love life, professionally as a novelist, and in either, or both?
How much of himself Salinger is willing to devote to writing consumes the rest of “Rebel in the Rye,” which strongly suggests that two experiences shaped the author’s entire sense of self: his public dumping by 18-year-old socialite Oona O’Neill for 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin while he was deployed in World War II, and the terrible things he participated in and saw during WWII, from D-Day to the concentration camps. But while the perpetually young-faced Hoult (the movie is disinterested in “aging” Hoult to play the older Salinger, which is honestly more of a distraction than some makeup would have been) does a good job channeling Salinger’s persistent anger and sense of otherness, the movie often lacks needed context about what really made the author tick.
The amount of disdain and hatred he shows for his father and sister are only briefly explored, as is his relationship with his mother; his deep-seated paranoia and willingness to hold petty grudges are presented without explanation; his religious beliefs are depicted but not elaborated upon. If you know about Salinger, you know how much “Rebel in the Rye” leaves out, too, like his leap-frogging between different faiths, or his correspondence with other well-respected writers of the time, or his recurring relationships with the pretty young women who wanted to understand the man behind Holden Caulfield. Salinger was, more and more as he aged, a selfish, fanatical figure, and the film only casually depicts that. He was terrible to his wife and children, but he was a pure writer! He was only hurt by people who used him because he was so devoted to innocence and truth! Those are certainly sentimental ideas, especially if you’re a tunnel-vision Salinger fan, but the movie delivers those clichés in a generic biopic kind of way.
Still, the cast is excellent—Spacey is a standout, as are Victor Garber as Salinger’s uncomprehending father and Sarah Paulson as his long-loyal literary agent—and the movie does effectively handle things like Salinger’s post-war trauma and how central his relationship with Whit was to his development as a writer. But in tackling so much of Salinger’s life, “Rebel in the Rye” glosses over some of the most noteworthy elements of the phenomenal writer’s peculiarities—ironically sanitizing a man who resisted that sort of treatment with nearly every fiber of his being.
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