'Salinger' documentary earns mixed reviews

'Salinger,' a film directed by Shane Salerno, explores the life of 'Catcher in the Rye' author J.D. Salinger.

The Weinstein Company/AP
Author J.D. Salinger (l.) stands with other counterintelligence officers after the Normandy invasion during World War II.

The documentary “Salinger” – which explores the life of reclusive “Catcher in the Rye” author J.D. Salinger and has been touted for months as revealing many secrets about the writer – hits theaters today. Does it live up to the hype? And just how juicy are those secrets?

The movie is directed by Shane Salerno and includes thoughts on Salinger by acquaintances, fellow authors, and movie stars who reflect on his legacy and life.

Monitor critic Peter Rainer awarded the film a grade of "B," writing that “Salinger,” which is directed by Shane Salerno, is “by turns fascinating and infuriating.” One of the main secrets, says Rainer, is the announcement of possible new works by the author that will be published (check out our article on the new Salinger novels and stories here).

“Much of what is revealed in this film has been reported in the past, though not in such detail,” he writes of the movie. Rainer calls Salerno’s hypothesis that Salinger’s emotional troubles were in part caused by post traumatic stress disorder dating from his service in World War II “plausibl[e].” “But there is much overreaching in this film,” he writes.

New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott was even less impressed. “There are plenty of archival images and talking-head interviews, but ‘Salinger,’ directed by Mr. Salerno, is less a work of cinema than the byproduct of its own publicity campaign,” Scott writes. “It does not so much explore the life and times of J. D. Salinger as run his memory and legacy through a spin cycle of hype.” He says the story is “full of hyperbole and speculation” and that “not altogether implausible idea[s] ... flicker into view during “Salinger,” only to be dissolved in the acid of sensationalism.”

Meanwhile, the possibility of new books to come, says Scott, is “blasted onto the screen with the kind of music that usually accompanies the destruction of a planet.”

But Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan was mostly won over by the film, calling it “energetic [and] informative” though at times “over-dramatized.” The interviews in the film, says Turan, “help us understand how Salinger, in ways both sensible and strange, dealt with the enormous celebrity that came his way.”

And USA Today reviewer Claudia Puig found the movie to be “compelling and captivating,” though she said the reenacments in the film were “irritating” and that the movie is sometimes “flawed.” 

Overall, however, it’s a “riveting story ... Salerno ... has unearthed some treasures,” she writes.

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