J. D. Salinger loved stubbornness—there was something inherently noble and sincere about it. He embraced his stubborn nature when fighting against a film adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye, thinking the novel’s first-person storytelling would fall flat when corrupted into a voiceover. Now that Rebel in the Rye has adapted Salinger’s life—upon which some of the novel was based—rather than any of his works, it’s clear he was right to be stubborn.
Biopics are hard to get right. They depend almost entirely on the excitement of the subject’s life and the film’s willingness to curtail its scope to best fit this excitement. Throughout all this, whether a biopic’s subject was exciting for a day or for a lifetime, that subject must appear as much a real person as possible. It’s easier, directors would have you believe, to accomplish this if you show an entire life rather than just the fun bits, because creating a soulless highlight reel is much simpler than crafting a humanizing story out of a moment. In Rebel in the Rye, his directorial debut, writer Danny Strong makes his highlight reel one not just of Salinger milestones, but of bad biopic no-nos.
Aside from the connective voiceover that cripples the character of Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) just as the real Salinger predicted it would cripple Holden Caulfield, Strong’s film obeys an illogical structure warped in an attempt to generate drama. Opening with a post-war Salinger institutionalized for combat stress reaction, unsure if he will be able to write again for his agent (Sarah Paulson), the film then flashes back to his childhood. This seems to imply that we’ll gain some vast understanding of the journey up to his hospitalization, hoping the question of “how did he get here?” will keep attentions rapt. Instead, the same shots are used over again as the film catches up to, then continues on from, the present. There’s no meaning behind it, no reveal or dramatic punch. The script could have started at the beginning, but in keeping with the ego-fueled ethos of the film, it seems determined that only amateur scripts would bother with something so banal as starting with the start.
That isn’t to say that all of this ego is bad. Salinger has relatable origins: He squirrels around with girls (including a doomed affair with Oona O’Neill, played by Zoey Deutch) who don’t care for him and their friends who aren’t impressed by him, pursuing writing professionally as a way to prove his worth. Salinger is never in danger of anything but middle class success, which he fears deeply. His father (Victor Garber) isn’t supportive, his mother (Hope Davis) is and together his parents exist to impose two emotions upon him: doubt and pride. He must rebel against the former and heartwarmingly accept the latter, which is delivered as a lukewarm ham sandwich by Garber later in the film.
If Garber is a mere sandwich server, Kevin Spacey owns a slaughterhouse. Attempting professionalism, Salinger takes a class from Story editor Whit Burnett (Spacey), a drunk, a lout and, most delightfully of all for an actor, a writing professor. Spacey hiccups and weaves, embracing the caustic asides and grandiose speeches of a self-important person in a self-important movie so greatly that one begins to believe the movie is about him.
But nobody will out-ego Salinger. Aside from a few snappy cuts and some moderately stylish shot selection, Rebel in the Rye is almost devoid of filmmaking choices that aren’t conversational two-shots. This gives the distinct advantage to the film that almost always centers its images on the self-centered Salinger himself. And Hoult handles the character well, finding pain in the right spots and charm in the others, but can’t avail himself of the tired construction of his film. Not all aspects of a writer’s life are interesting, least of all the parts when he’s are writing. There’s nothing revealing about the cinematic shorthand of cigarettes burning to ash or a wastebasket’s crumple pile growing to a paper peak. The brief scenes of Salinger’s wartime experience spring from the screen because they’re different, as do those documenting the politics of magazine and book publication. Meanwhile, the film can’t dwell on these moments too long because of how much life it’s set out to cover—all the way to its title-carded finish line that explains to its audience that yes, they may very well have heard of the popular book The Catcher in the Rye.
Rebel in the Rye’s script problems aren’t just its broad issues of scope which leave little room for directorial creativity. The minutiae of the film’s scenes are undermined by a screenplay with details so sparse that any inclusion of anything means that there will be an earnestly meaningful callback later. Every fun line, every prop, every anecdote is inelegantly gathered and arranged for recognizability. Salinger’s world doesn’t feel real, but like an amusement park ride taking visitors through the major stops of an author’s legacy, each moment a checkmark before the literary splashdown. It’s almost stubbornly mediocre.
Director: Danny Strong
Writer: Danny Strong
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Zoey Deutch, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Hope Davis, Victor Garber
Release Date: September 15, 2017