Despite Strong Performances, ‘Rebel in the Rye’ Is a Slump of a Salinger Biopic

The film’s subject has gravity of its own, but simple filmmaking decisions get in the way.

Courtesy Sundance

Rebel in the Rye is not as terrible as its title, so we can say that for it. Given that its subject had a razor-sharp ear for titles himself—I mean, who can top For Esmé–With Love and Squalor or A Perfect Day for Bananafish?—you might expect a little better from a movie that purports to tell the story of J.D. Salinger. Alas, the title is just the first misstep in a well-meaning but ham-handed attempt to get at Salinger’s mystery, an attempt made fitfully bearable by an intriguing central performance and the tweedy atmosphere of mid-20th-century literary America.

Previous attempts at profiling the reclusive author tended to collapse due to the sheer lack of information about his life or the possibility of legal action from Salinger himself (he died in 2010 at 91). Rebel is written and directed by Danny Strong, who created the TV series Empire, and based on Kenneth Slawenski’s book J. D. Salinger: A Life, published in 2011. Its sincerity is evident in the inspirational-teacher clichés and the firm conclusion that Salinger’s WWII experiences (he was at Utah Beach on D-Day and saw concentration camps first-hand) instilled post-traumatic stress disorder that dictated much of his postwar life and fiction. (There’s no question Salinger suffered shell-shock, as they called it then, but the psychological explanation is a little too familiar as a biopic convention.)

Beyond the cut-and-dried, some of the basic stuff of moviemaking is clumsy enough to derail the project. Scenes in a Manhattan club so baldly try to disguise the low budget they end up looking like a high-school production, full of quick cuts of jazz players and swing dancers as though announcing, “Hey, look how this cinematic energy conveys the high spirits of youth!”

And yet—it’s J.D. Salinger. There is a pull there. We first meet him (played by Nicholas Hoult) as a college washout, living at home with a supportive mother (Hope Davis) and perpetually disappointed father (Victor Garber); the latter can’t understand why Jerry can’t just go into the reliable Salinger business: “Meat and cheese distribution has been very good to this family.” Jerry wants to enroll in the writing classes at Columbia taught by Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), the editor of Story magazine. Spacey gets some authentic pathos into the role of a frustrated author who wouldn’t mind getting just a smidgen of credit for having discovered and encouraged one of the era’s major literary talents.

Somewhat mysteriously, Jerry has caught the eye of Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutsch), the daughter of Eugene O’Neill. It’s too bad things didn’t work out better for the couple, because Deutsch exits too soon; as she lavishly demonstrated in Before I Fall (a teen picture that happens to be one of this year’s most underappreciated films), Deutsch is an ardent, super-focused actress. If anyone out there doesn’t know the identity of Oona O’Neill’s eventual husband, I suppose I shouldn’t spoil it, but let’s just say that from Salinger’s perspective his jilting must have been one of the all-time great “other man” scenarios.

Aside from the inherent interest of wondering what made the author of The Catcher in the Rye tick, there’s also fascination in watching Hoult tackle the role. I would not have guessed that the weird-looking kid from About a Boy would grow into a rangy, lively actor, but Hoult has been impressive in his adult parts, and he committed completely to the manic energy of Mad Max: Fury Road. Here, the Brit actor gets into the staccato rhythms of a New Yorker, his words coming out in quick bursts that mimic the style of a sarcastic wiseguy from a 1930s Hollywood film. His grasp of the role is more insightful than the film’s psychology.

After a certain point, Salinger retreated to his Vermont compound, and declined to publish anything after the mid-1960s—so the movie ends there. Until Salinger’s alleged stockpiled novels start flooding the market, we’ll get this kind of speculative stab at explaining his life. Presumably, he would have hated that.

Rebel in the Rye, Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., Sept. 15 at the Meridian 16 and AMC Seattle 10.

film@seattleweekly.com

More in Film

The Primal Attraction of ‘Beast’

Arresting lead performances give this British psychological thriller an alluringly dangerous sexual energy.

I Am Not a Witch. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks Week 1

From a PBS star to a hip-hop firebrand, our choices for the must-see films screening at the fest from May 21–28.

Hearts Beat Loud. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Opening Weekend

From Chinese internet stars to a classic Japanese masterpiece, our choices for the must-see films screening at the fest from May 17–20.

Just a couple of normal buddies hanging out in Deadpool 2. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
Alive and Quippin’

Deadpool 2 might not be as sharp as the original, but the barrage of pop culture jokes keeps things fun.

The women that run SIFF: Beth Barrett and Sarah Wilke. Photo by Amy Kowalenko/SIFF
Women Filmmakers Make Big Moves at Seattle International Film Festival

As calls for accountability and inclusions roil Hollywood, SIFF’s power duo leads the nation’s largest film festival into a fairer future.

Leave No Trace. Image courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Guide

Picks for our most anticipated films at this year’s festival.

Mackenzie Davis and Charlize Theron star in <em>Tully</em>. Photo courtesy Kimberly French/Focus Features
The Biting Motherhood of ‘Tully’

Charlize Theron carries Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s tale of weary parental life.

Deadpool will say anything to get you to see his movie this summer. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
Summer Movie Preview 2018

From action blockbusters to heartfelt documentaries, our film critic picks the summer’s must-see films.

Superheroes … so … many … superheroes. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios
‘Avengers: Infinity War’ and the Infinite Cinematic Universe

The overstuffed “climax” of Marvel’s long-running superhero series is undercut by the knowledge that it’ll continue.

Most Read