Working from the biography J.D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski, writer-director Danny Strong (a successful screenwriter of such works as Lee Daniels’ The Butler and the two-part The Hunger Games: Mockingjay films, as well as one of the creators of the TV series “Empire”) is attempting a type of film he’s never been involved with before.
In some of his most inspired screenplays, Recount and Game Change (both for HBO), Strong covered a small but significant sliver of real life and zeroed in on the bizarre cast of real-life players in both the election results that led to George W. Bush becoming president and the McCain/Palin run for the White House, respectively. But with his new film, Rebel in the Rye (Strong’s first as a feature director), he broadens the scope on the life of Salinger, from ambitious, teenage would-be writer to jaded, paranoid, successful celebrity and eventual recluse.
Salinger throughout the years in a fantastic performance is Nicholas Hoult, who has proven himself in bigger-budget, genre works like the more recent X-Men films and Mad Max: Fury Road. Here, he gives a sweeping, shifting performance as the wide-eyed, cocky optimist who believes he is a genius early in life and is just waiting for the rest of the world to discover it. One who spotted his potential early was his writing instructor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), who pushes Salinger not only on how to make his work more personal, but also suggests that he take a character from one of his short stories and build an entire novel around him. That character is Holden Caulfield, and Salinger dragged the writing of The Catcher in the Rye with him through years of tough fighting on the European front lines of World War II.
Rebel in the Rye doesn’t simply play connect the dots through the high points of Salinger’s life, his struggle to finish Catcher, and his equally tough road to get it published with the help of his literary agent, Dorothy Olding (Sarah Paulson). It hits a few obvious highlights, including a youthful love affair with Oona O’Neill (daughter of playwright Eugene, played by Zoey Deutch), who left him while he was fighting in the war to marry a much older Charlie Chaplin. Strong also gives us glimpses of Salinger’s contentious relationship with his parents, particularly father Sol (Victor Garber), though his mother (Hope Davis) does the best she can to make peace between them.
What the film gets right is how Salinger took his life experiences—from suffering a broken heart to all-out wartime post-traumatic stress disorder—and fed it all into the Caulfield character. He resisted notes or requests to change anything about the book, even from his publishers, and the result was a universally praised first novel that made Salinger so famous and hounded by fans who saw themselves in Caulfield that he had to move to the isolation of a spacious country home.
Rebel in the Rye doesn’t shy away from Salinger’s admiration for pretty, young women—the first of which was his eventual wife, journalist Claire Douglas (Lucy Boynton)—whom he essentially abandons by working nonstop for days on end in a separate office on the country estate. The film only skims the surface of the way Salinger regularly had young women visit him in the country only to dispose of them rather callously (these stories are better detailed in the salacious 2013 documentary Salinger). It also doesn’t follow Salinger into old or even middle age, so I never got a sense that Strong was attempting to sugar coat any bad behavior.
One of the most difficult things to do in a film about any type of artist is capture the creative process. Filmmaker Strong is aware that simply featuring long stretches of Salinger typing isn’t particularly interesting, so instead he examines what elements went into his early short stories and his most famous work. It’s certainly only one approach, but for the most part, it serves as a workable, watchable entry point for the uninitiated. Those looking for more in-depth observations, especially about the creation of The Catcher in the Rye, might be better of reading books on the subject. The performances, especially Hoult’s, are what kept me engaged in this flawed work, which deep dives on certain aspects of Salinger’s life just enough to make it a passable biopic.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.