2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Zoey Deutch, Victor Garber, Hope Davis | directed by Danny Strong | 1hr 46mins |
Studio Pitch: The extraordinary life of J. D. Salinger.
About 5 years ago hot-shot screenwriter Shane Salerno delivered the remarkable documentary Salinger, an exhaustive excavation of the life of J.D. Salinger from his writing, to his time in World War 2 to his fights with publishers over punctuation to his reclusive final years and the fans who tried to locate him. But because it’s not a real movie until Hollywood has gotten a hold of it, here comes the dramatized adaptation.
For the better part of the last decade industry titans have been trying to bring The Catcher in the Rye to the stage and screen, from playwright Elia Kazan to Billy Wilder and Steven Speilberg with very reasonable objections from Salinger himself and the Salinger estate. But let’s say you do have the rights to a Salinger biography. And let’s say you can make the assumption that the perfectionist, borderline obsessive writer was very much like Holden Caulfield himself. And say he probably lived events that inspired the book, maybe he walked through Central Park and wondered where the ducks go in the winter. Well now you have your backdoor Catcher in the Rye adaptation.
Rebel in the Rye spans most of the life of Salinger in traditional bio-pic fashion, but screenwriter/director Danny Strong is really interested in Salinger’s commitment and attitude towards writing. The events of Salinger’s life he chooses to pause on and fast forward through are selective, focusing on his commitment to writing without a structure, his narrative voice, his difficult attitude toward commercialism and retaining his own artistic integrity. Strong’s film romanticizes Salinger a bit: turning his post-war PTSD into melodrama, downplaying his fights with New Yorker publishers over commas and refusing to correct misspelled words (“two words makes more sense”) and leaving behind his failed marriages. He treats Salinger as the genius and the writer’s writer he was, but leaves out some of the thornier edges that makes him even more interesting.
While often Rebel feels like the kind of phony conventional mass market piece Salinger himself would abhor, the “problem” is that his life is just too wild and too interesting. All this movie has to do is tell the story, and not royally screw it up, to keep the audience interested. This was a guy who wooed Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, then had her stolen by none other than Charlie Chaplin, then landed on the beach in Normandy and THEN hunted Nazi spies and probably married one. Strong won’t focus on any single event in his life and flesh that out – as this year’s magnificent The Darkest Hour did for Winston Churchill – but instead samples little bits here and there. He leaves out the World War 2 time almost entirely, focusing on how his departure and return affects the characters stateside. He spends far more time on Salinger’s writing teacher and first publisher played by Kevin Spacey, a relationship that spans the film based on a character I’m not sure ever existed and drips with odd obsessive undertones and would even without the recent off-screen revelations about Spacey. Based on Salinger you get the impression that Salinger wrote Catcher during his military days based on his frustration with the world. Based on Rebel in the Rye, Salinger’s hope for bringing his creation to a novel – and the fear of not finishing it – is what kept him going through the war.
Everyone in the cast gets to dress up in 30s and 40s period garb. Nicholas Hoult is quite good as young hot-head Salinger. But when the movie shifts to post-war Salinger it touches on mania that Hoult can’t get to. In Strong’s film Salinger doesn’t age a day over the decades, with Hoult playing him (and looking the part) exactly the same at the end of the film as the beginning. It’s all reasonably well made, with a strong ending, but the softer, more conventional narrative choices make Rebel in the Rye the inferior take on J.D. Salinger. The film focuses a lot on his Salinger’s romantic drama, making the case that it was simply girl trouble that spurned his cynical narrative voice instead of frustration with the world at large and all the phonies in it. It’s a straight-forward bio-pic. Just see Salinger instead and you’ll get a whole lot more to chew on.