J.D. Salinger biopic 'Rebel in the Rye' falls back on banalities

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

Both as a writer and as a man, Salinger was nothing if not unconventional. 'Rebel in the Rye' is so tasteful that it practically slides off the screen.

Courtesy of Alison Cohen Rosa/IFC Films
Kevin Spacey and Nicholas Hoult star in 'Rebel in the Rye.'

How do you portray a great writer in the movies without delivering the usual cliché-ridden claptrap? The problem is compounded in the case of J.D. Salinger, a portion of whose life is portrayed in co-
writer and director Danny Strong’s “Rebel in the Rye,” starring Nicholas Hoult.

Salinger pretty much withdrew from public scrutiny in the early 1950s after the success of “The Catcher in the Rye” and “Nine Stories,” moving from Manhattan to Cornish, N.H. Since even his public years – despite several biographies and the 2013 documentary “Salinger” – remain shrouded in conjecture, the temptation for Strong to fall back on the standard banalities appears to have been irresistible. But both as a writer and as a man, Salinger was nothing if not unconventional. “Rebel in the Rye” is so tasteful that it practically slides off the screen.

With his matinée idol handsomeness that would fit right into 1940s Hollywood, Hoult doesn’t look much like the (rare) photographs of Salinger from the years depicted in the movie, roughly 1939 through the early 1950s. Salinger had a leaner, wolfish look, with a hint of terror behind the eyes even when they were lit up.

But no matter. It’s probably too much to expect that actors portray famous writers well and also look like them. And Hoult’s casting isn’t as egregious as, say, having the slight Jude Law play the towering behemoth Thomas Wolfe in “Genius.” Still, it’s not just the look of Hoult here that jars. It’s also that, as an actor, he lacks the animus to convince us that this writer had the mettle to write “The Catcher in the Rye,” or those nine stories (not to mention “Franny and Zooey”). 

Strong lays out the motivations for Salinger’s insurrectional instincts, but there is a large disconnect between what we are shown and what comes through in Hoult’s performance. We see Salinger – who goes by “Jerry” in the movie – rudely challenging his writing teacher at Columbia University, the legendary Whit Burnett (played with bemused aplomb by Kevin Spacey). Naturally, they become best buddies – at least until Burnett, despite his best efforts, fails to publish Salinger’s short story collection. We see Salinger in a sanitarium, traumatized by his service in World War II, during which he landed on Utah Beach on D-Day; later he was present at the liberation of a concentration camp. Suffering from what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder, he recovers his writer’s voice with the help of a Zen guru (Bernard White), to whom he confides that he ripped up the pages he wrote the previous day. “Did you enjoy ripping up the page?” is the guru’s gnomic response. None of these scenes feel authentic.

I’ve often thought that the almost complete absence of any mention of World War II in “The Catcher in the Rye,” which was published in 1951, reflected Salinger’s attempt to expunge from his memory the horrors of that war. The book is both scathingly personal and deeply evasive. If some of this conflicted quality of Salinger’s had come through in “Rebel in the Rye,” watching it might have been a far darker and more jagged experience.  

But Strong is content to walk us through the paces of Salinger’s troubled ascendancy without igniting any depth charges. Even the less threatening aspects of Salinger’s life don’t hit home. A bit too much is made, for example, of how The New Yorker was the pinnacle of writerly success back then, and Salinger’s parents, played by Hope Davis and Victor Garber, are strictly papier-mâché – the mother is nurturing and supportive, the businessman father rejects the arts. Even if this was the way it actually played out, it doesn’t convince. 

It’s ironic that Salinger, who loved movies but refused to have his books sold to Hollywood after a botched adaption of his story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” should now be the subject of a movie he would in all likelihood disdain. In that same vein, I’ve always been grateful that he prevented “The Catcher in the Rye” from being movie-ized. How could any filmmaker possibly match the book? 

On the other hand, I am reminded of an anecdote involving James M. Cain, who once was asked by a friend how he felt about what Hollywood had done to one of his books. Cain answered, “They haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf.” Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking.)

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