Salinger biopic doting but informative
Classroom classic Catcher in the Rye both haunted and defined author’s life
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.