J.D. Salinger biopic fails to catch mys­tery of man

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - MOVIES - By Katie Walsh

A post­script at the end of “Rebel in the Rye” states that leg­endary “Catcher in the Rye” au­thor J.D. Salinger’s seclu­sion and re­fusal to pub­lish only made him more fa­mous and revered. It’s tempt­ing to raise the cur­tain on that mys­tery, but it’s like pulling back the cur­tain on the Wizard of Oz. Ul­ti­mately, what’s re­vealed in the new biopic of young Salinger, writ­ten and di­rected by Danny Strong, poses some in­ter­est­ing ques­tions but doesn’t live up to the power of the mys­tery around the man it­self.

Strong draws on Ken­neth Slawen­ski’s biog­ra­phy, “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” to pro­vide the de­tails about what shaped the young, up­start writer in the early 1940s. Young Bri­tish ac­tor Nicholas Hoult steps into the role of smart-mouthed Jerry Salinger, who’s bad at school, chases women and lives to write, de­spite the protes­ta­tions of his fa­ther (Vic­tor Gar­ber). Kevin Spacey plays Whit Bur­nett, Jerry’s writ­ing pro­fes­sor at Columbia Univer­sity, and their con­nec­tion proves the cen­tral re­la­tion­ship to the story.

One of the main and most in­trigu­ing ques­tions posed by the film is “why write?” It’s a ques­tion Whit de­mands of Jerry, but it’s al­most rhetor­i­cal. In the pu­ri­tan­i­cal form of writ­ing that Whit teaches, and that Jerry adopts, the mo­ti­va­tion to write is sim­ply the writ­ing. Write be­cause you must, be­cause you can’t stand not to write. Don’t write to “be a writer.”

This nearly re­li­gious ap­proach to writ­ing comes into sharp fo­cus in the back half of the film, af­ter Jerry’s chased ev­ery girl and lit­er­ary mag­a­zine out MPAA rat­ing: PG-13 (for the­matic el­e­ments; lan­guage, in­clud­ing sex­ual ref­er­ences; some vi­o­lence; and smok­ing through­out) Run­ning time: 1:46 Opens: Fri­day of his league. Af­ter a bleak stint in the war, rav­aged by PTSD, Jerry dis­cov­ers med­i­ta­tion and be­gins to ap­ply its ten­ants to elim­i­nate the dis­trac­tions of mod­ern life. His mon­k­like ap­proach to his work trans­forms his writ­ing into an al­most re­li­gious de­vo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, and he re­treats to New Hamp­shire, even­tu­ally be­com­ing a recluse and ceas­ing to pub­lish his work al­to­gether.

That em­pha­sis on writ­ing for writ­ing’s sake and his ob­ses­sive sa­cred pur­suit is fas­ci­nat­ing and enig­matic. A philo­soph­i­cal, ex­is­ten­tial deep dive into this would have been truly orig­i­nal and strik­ing. But Strong has laid out all-too- easy an­swers for this es­sen­tially cu­ri­ous ques­tion, of­fer­ing war trauma and PTSD, as well as ro­man­tic re­jec­tion and an aver­sion to fame, for the rea­sons that Jerry es­capes to the woods. But wouldn’t it be more in­ter­est­ing if it wasn’t so neatly spelled out?

Hoult is such a strong ac­tor that he ca­pa­bly com­mands the screen and holds at­ten­tion, even when “Rebel in the Rye” is a screen­play des­per­ately in need of some fo­cus. We’re whisked back and forth in time with un­nec­es­sary flash­backs, and while the first half of the film is a romp, we’re quickly dashed through the hor­rors of war in or­der to watch the rest of the story un­fold. The film of­ten feels like it doesn’t know where to tell you to look, or need­lessly over­ex­plains in a re­duc­tive man­ner. It ends with a clunk, be­cause, ul­ti­mately, when the cur­tain is pulled back on the Wizard, isn’t it al­ways a bit of a let down?

ALI­SON CO­HEN ROSA/IFC FILMS

Bri­tish ac­tor Nicholas Hoult por­trays a young J.D. Salinger in his col­lege years, war ex­pe­ri­ence and dive into writ­ing.

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