J.D. Salinger hated publicity, and were he still around would undoubtedly dislike the very idea of “Rebel in the Rye,” Danny Strong’s biopic focusing on his early development as a writer and his withdrawal to a reclusive life after the monumental success of “The Catcher in the Rye.” Based on a book by Kenneth Slawenski, it hews fairly closely to the facts, but presents them in such a sketchy, conventional fashion that it winds up feeling almost a parody of the tortured-genius genre.
Strong begins with a reference to Holden Caulfield’s opening lines in “The Catcher in the Rye,” and then proceeds through the important episodes in Salinger’s life from the late thirties through the early fifties as though he were checking items off a list. He starts the narrative in 1939, when Salinger (Nicholas Hoult), having dropped out of NYU, is gadding about the Big Apple party circuit and romancing Oona O’Neill (Zooey Deutsch)—until she abruptly dumps him for Charlie Chaplin.
Firmly believing in his writing ability and supported by his mother Miriam (Hope Davis), he enrolls in a course at Columbia with Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), the sharp-tongued editor of Story Magazine, who in effect becomes his mentor, although his father Saul (Victor Garber) tries to push him down a more practical path. Burnett’s decision to publish Salinger’s first story begins a hot streak during which his pieces take off, eventually earning a place in The New Yorker, the highest affirmation—though even at this early stage, and despite the prompting of his agent (Sarah Paulson), he refuses to make the changes suggested by the magazine’s editorial staff.
Then World War II intervenes, and his experiences in combat bring Salinger back to New York a haunted man struggling with a severe case of writer’s block (as well as a German wife who quickly disappears). Happily it’s resolved with surprising ease—or at least it seems so here—by an encounter with a Buddhist teacher (Bernard White), whose lessons on meditation prove miraculously effective.
That opens the door to Salinger’s heeding Burnett’s suggestion that he make the character of Holden Caulfield, whom he had created for a short story, the focus of a novel instead. Salinger follows that advice, despite the fact that he has broken with his old teacher over the collapse of a plan to publish a collection of his stories, and the rest is publishing history. “The Catcher in the Rye” becomes the literary anthem of a generation, as the reactions of enthusiastic fans—some overly so, as a chance encounter with a guy who actually sees himself as Caulfield suggests—demonstrate.
The final section of the movie sketches Salinger’s reconnection with Burnett and his increasing reclusiveness, particularly after he feels betrayed by a pretty high school student who asked to interview him for her school paper but then publishes her piece in a “real” one. The picture closes before he disappears totally into his retreat, but it foreshadows the years of absence from public view—and cessation of publication—for which the author became notorious.
Hoult cuts a fine figure as Salinger, but he has a hard time looking convincing while doing the things other actors have also fumbled with in portraying writers—sitting at a typewriter with furrowed brow as inspiration fails to come, or ripping pages off the roller and tossing them, balled up, into a wastebasket. And while Paulson, Davis and Garber add a few notes, the only other cast member of consequence is Spacey, who brings some saucy energy to Burnett, especially in the early scenes when grandly declaiming pearl of wisdom (his later, more desperate moments when Burnett is attempting to regain Salinger’s friendship, aren’t nearly as much fun). Both he and Hoult are hobbled by the fact that much of Strong’s dialogue has the artificial feel typical of heavy-handedly potted screen biography. It gets the point across, but with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Dina Goldman’s production design and Deborah Scott’s costumes deserve praise for their period detail, though they don’t manage to convey a fully lived-in atmosphere, and Kramer Morgenthau’s cinematography is lush.
In the end, however, “Rebel in the Rye” is literal rather than literary, a dutiful recitation of the facts of Salinger’s life that fails to convey much of a sense of the author’s inner self.