There was nothing that “The Catcher in the Rye” protagonist Holden Caulfield despised more than phonies, from his own family, to strangers on the street, to silly old Sally Hayes. He might feel the same about Danny Strong’s J.D. Salinger biopic “Rebel in the Rye,” which frequently suffers from shallow observations about the author’s astounding life.
Based in part on Kenneth Slawenski’s Salinger biography “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” “Rebel in the Rye” is mostly occupied with Salinger’s early years, specifically the period when which he conceived of Holden Caulfield and finally completed “The Catcher in the Rye.” Despite the focus on such a fertile period, it suffers from a meandering narrative and a jarring pace, particularly as it pushes on into his later years without bothering to age star Nicholas Hoult in the slightest.
Strong is a veteran actor, best known as Doyle McMaster in “The Gilmore Girls” or as Danny Siegel in “Mad Men.” He also won an Emmy for his adaptation of “Game Change,” the story of the 2008 election that became Jay Roach’s HBO movie in 2012. In introducing his directorial debut to the Sundance Film Festival Tuesday night, Strong made clear his desire that the film speak to the demands and desires of the creative process, and his impulse to make a movie that’s as much about Salinger as it is about being an artist is understandable and even admirable.
Despite a strong start, picking up just as the 19-year-old “Jerry” announces his intention to go whole hog on this writing thing, “Rebel in the Rye” struggles to maintain its focus and eventually strays from the “Catcher” years to deliver a thin, greatest-hits look at Salinger’s life. A number of lines land with a resounding thud, cruel in a feature dedicated to the craft of writing. While Hoult especially works hard to sell the script, by the time “Rebel” limps toward its epilogue-heavy ending audiences will likely be able to guess every word before it’s on the screen.
The film opens in 1939, after Salinger had cycled through a number of higher-education institutions, eventually deciding to enroll at Columbia University to study creative writing. It’s there that he meets his first mentor, “Story” magazine editor Whit Burnett (an energized Kevin Spacey). The pair initially clash (Jerry is, of course, a know-it-all smartass), but a strong friendship develops and Whit’s belief in Jerry’s talents (even if he has a funny way of showing it) helps the young writer come into his own. It’s Whit who implores Jerry to develop Holden Caulfield into a full novel, pushing Jerry out of his long-time comfort zone of short stories.
Of course, life gets in the way, and Jerry is forced to put his big dreams on hold (including his ill-fated relationship with Oona O’Neill, played here by the always-welcome Zoey Deutch) and head across the ocean to fight in World War II. Although Salinger’s war experiences were painfully formative, the film spends about five minutes in the trenches, resulting in a cheap-looking and surface-level examination of the horrors of battle.
Later, Jerry will be felled by PTSD flashbacks and raging nightmares delivered with a minimum of flair and emotional insight (turns out, if you’ve seen one portrayal of psychological wounds being exacerbated by big crowds and flashing lights, you’ve seen them all). Similarly, Jerry’s creative impulse is all rushed voiceovers and Hoult telegraphing inspiration by widening of his eyes. (Mostly, though, Hoult is just aces in the role.)
It would be difficult to tell the story of Salinger and “Catcher” without chronicling the fallout from the book’s immense success. There’s no question that Salinger’s seemingly instantaneous fame horrified him, certainly enough to send him to his secluded house in New Hampshire where he lived for the rest of his life, but the film only introduces a couple of curious fans (though one is, admittedly, quite unnerving) before Salinger hightails it out of the city. It’s a strange choice that never allows the audience to fully the Salinger’s terror that changed the course of Salinger’s life.
However, Strong does find his footing when he weaves in elements from Salinger’s own life that later appeared on the page in both “Catcher” and his various Glass family stories, and it’s those moments that most ably speak to the filmmaker’s desire to illuminate the intangibility of creative genius. There’s a good J.D. Salinger movie in here, somewhere, but the final result of “Rebel in the Rye” is one too phony to love.
“Rebel in the Rye” premiered in the Premieres section of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.