J.D. Salinger was famously reticent, if not outwardly opposed, to his work receiving the Silver Screen treatment. Filmmaker Danny Strong’s passion project “Rebel in the Rye,” a new biopic and about the great writer, serves as a prime validation of Salinger’s apprehension of Hollywood.
Strong frames his narrative around Salinger’s (a brooding Nicholas Hoult) platonic love-hate relationship with his Columbia literature professor and lifelong champion Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey). It begins in 1944, with Salinger penning an apologia to Burnett and asserting that “Holden Caulfield is dead.” On cue, the story flits back to 1939, with an arrogant Salinger preparing to enroll in Columbia, bed the first girl he approaches and easily publish his early scribblings, viewing himself as an arbiter of authenticity in a world of phonies.
The story proceeds with due diligence through the major markers of Salinger’s life: His humbling months of instruction and first taste of literary success, in the pages of Burnett’s Story magazine; his conceiving Catcher in the Rye while on the front lines of Normandy, while nearly freezing to death; his battle-scarred return to the home front, suffering from PTSD and depression; his drift into Buddhism; his anointment into the top ranks of the New York literati and his subsequent retreat into a country hermitage.
They’re all compelling constituent parts, or else they should have been, were it not from Strong’s relentlessly ordinary approach. As a compact information delivery service for those who don’t have the time or inclination to read its biographical source material, J.D. Salinger: A Life, “Rebel in the Rye” serves a base function. And the scenes with Spacey have a definitive crackle—and even, when Burnett’s relationship with Salinger is on the outs, a palpable ache. For his part, Hoult convincingly evolves from boy to man over the course of his character’s belated coming-of-age progression.
But make no mistake: “Rebel in the Rye” is a disappointing example of an iconoclastic voice neutered by a pedestrian treatment. This is a film of clichéd rejection-letter montages, and images of inspired typewriting scored by triumphant string music. It’s head-slappingly literal in its depiction of Salinger transferring real-life experiences to the page, and supporting characters, such as his almost comically disapproving father Sol (Victor Garber), are absent dimension and nuance. It doesn’t convey the complexities of a difficult life so much as reduce it to signposts, gracelessly trundling from one period to the next.
Some audiences will accept its transparent story devices and flavorless direction. But the real Salinger—to say nothing of Holden Caulfield—would certainly reject its oppressive sentiment. And if the man himself wouldn’t be pleased with the product, what good is it, really?
“Rebel in the Rye” opens today, Sept. 29, at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray and Movies of Lake Worth.