Whether couched in prose or celluloid, literary biographies are a dodgy enterprise, but prose at least has the luxury of length for people who are probably pre-disposed to sitting for long periods of time reading a book. Danny Strong’s rather precise film about the development of J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) into one of the most iconic American novelists of the 20th century isn’t really that long, but it feels over-stuffed with details that could have been conveyed in different, more economical ways. It’s likely that most people with any interest in Salinger know that he was a difficult artist, that editors had their hands full with a writer who knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish even if that vision didn’t jibe with conventional publishing wisdom at the time. However, they may not have known about his PTSD as a result of his service in WWII, his crush on Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona (Zoey Deutch), or his brief but seminal interest in Buddhism, and while Strong was right to explain these matters, he treats them as milestones on Salinger’s road to success and self-exile without distinguishing them in terms of relative impact.
If the movie works in any valuable way it’s in the way Strong weaves Salinger’s difficult writing regimen into the fabric of the story. We see how Holden Caulfield developed not so much as a character in Salinger’s most famous work, but rather as a means for Salinger to process his disappointments with a life less ordinary. Though there’s a certain mechanical efficiency to Strong’s methodology—raging at arbitrary acts of authority or sexual frustration leads to feverish sessions at his writing desk—it does show how such a unique creation emerges from a need to make sense out of random experiences. Also instructive is the central inclusion of Whit Burnett (pre-scandal Keven Spacey, marvelously self-effacing), the writing teacher who had more to do with Salinger developing his voice simply because he made him suffer due to his own envy.
The problem is that Strong gets too close to Salinger: the inner monologues adapted from writings, the rather hackneyed psychological treatment of his relationship with his well-to-do parents, and, most especially, Hoult’s eternally brooding portrait, which doesn’t change meaningfully as he grows older and becomes a literary star. It’s easy to understand how a writer of such a peculiar sensibility would never be satisfied with success, but maturity has to count for something. In Rebel in the Rye it seems to have no effect on Salinger, either spiritually or physically. He’s still incredibly beautiful, and grouchy.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).
Rebel in the Rye home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2016 Rebel Movie, LLC