Salinger biopic dot­ing but in­for­ma­tive

Class­room clas­sic Catcher in the Rye both haunted and de­fined au­thor’s life

Regina Leader-Post - - FRONT PAGE - TINA HASSANNIA

It’s al­most too easy to poke fun at Danny Strong ’s biopic of J.D. Salinger, Rebel in the Rye, the ac­tor’s di­rec­to­rial de­but. Aside from co-cre­at­ing the TV se­ries Em­pire, Strong is best known for his roles in Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer and Gil­more Girls.

Rebel holds an overtly em­pa­thetic view of the elu­sive au­thor, but suc­cess­fully con­veys the emo­tional trau­mas Salinger (Ni­cholas Hoult) faced hon­ing his craft un­der the tough-love tute­lage of Columbia Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor and Story mag­a­zine ed­i­tor Whit Bur­nett (Kevin Spacey), and how the even­tual suc­cess of Salinger’s best­selling novel Catcher in the Rye haunted his per­sonal life.

Based mostly on Ken­neth Slawen­ski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life, the film de­tails the early set­backs for the young Salinger, bet­ter known as “Jerry.” Tribu­la­tions in­clude his fa­ther’s (Vic­tor Gar­ber) lack of sup­port (he im­bues in Jerry a self-ha­tred re­lated to their Jewish back­ground), be­ing shipped off to the First World War just as his writ­ing ca­reer was tak­ing off and find­ing out via a front-page news­pa­per story while he serves abroad that his girl­friend, Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), mar­ried Char­lie Chap­lin.

With lit­tle to live for, Jerry sur­vives the trau­ma­tiz­ing ter­rors of the trenches by fo­cus­ing on the fic­tional char­ac­ter Holden Caulfield that he’d be­gun to flesh out in a se­ries of short sto­ries be­fore the war. He be­comes a cata­tonic wreck upon his re­lease, but finds his re­turn to writ­ing af­ter learn­ing from Swami Nikhi­lananda (Bernard White) about the heal­ing pow­ers of med­i­ta­tion. Jerry grounds him­self and recom­mits to writ­ing — this time, the novel based on Caulfield that would define his ca­reer.

A fight with Bur­nett, the over­whelm­ing overnight suc­cess of Catcher, a spate of psy­chotic Caulfield-like fans and some emo­tional dam­age from his warstricken PTSD trans­form Jerry from a fo­cused, bril­liant writer into a para­noid recluse. Rebel mostly de­tails Salinger’s short ca­reer in pub­lish­ing, and ei­ther quickly glosses over or sweeps

un­der the rug his many trou­bled per­sonal and ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ments. The film is con­tent to re­duc­tively end with Salinger’s wish to fix his fail­ings as a negligent fa­ther and hus­band.

In ad­di­tion to be­ing a lop­sided por­trayal, the film oc­ca­sion­ally veers into corny ter­ri­tory. Take Salinger’s ever-pa­tient lit­er­ary agent Dorothy Old­ing (Sarah Paul­son), who tells the stub­born Salinger early in his ca­reer “pub­lish­ing is ev­ery­thing.” When the much-older au­thor con­fides he’s ex­hausted a need to pub­lish his work, Dorothy replies, “It’s like I’ve al­ways said: Pub­lish­ing isn’t ev­ery­thing.” Groan!

What makes Rebel a some­what in­spir­ing watch, how­ever, is the em­pa­thetic view it holds not for Salinger but for the craft of writ­ing. The fully re­al­ized relationship be­tween Bur­nett and Salinger blos­soms dur­ing his school­ing. Bur­nett clev­erly de­vel­ops a method to push the tal­ented but un­fo­cused stu­dent to con­sis­tently prac­tise his art and pays him a princely $25 for his first pub­lished piece in Story. Spacey stands out as the sar­donic, ir­rev­er­ent Bur­nett.

Rebel is au­then­tic enough to acutely por­tray the per­sonal minu­tiae of Salinger’s life that made him into a hard­work­ing writer. His con­ver­sa­tions on lit­er­a­ture may in­spire wannabe writ­ers to stand up for wellthought-out es­thetic de­ci­sions, even when they run counter to con­ven­tion.

A scene where Salinger de­fends his de­ci­sion to ti­tle his story A Perfect Day for Bananafish in­stead of putting a space be­tween “ba­nana” and “fish” ex­em­pli­fies how stub­born­ness can some­times be a gift. But Strong’s re­fusal to re­flect more de­lib­er­ately on his pro­tag­o­nist’s flaws — such as how that same stub­born­ness per­son­ally af­fected other peo­ple in Salinger’s life — make Rebel a feel-good ha­giog­ra­phy, one that at least brims with some valu­able lessons.

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