Film Review: Rebel in the Rye

The life behind the legend of J.D. Salinger is examined and explained—up to a point.
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As arguably the most private public figure this side of Howard Hughes, the late J.D. Salinger has been the object of endless curiosity and speculation—especially regarding his self-imposed, decades-long exile from most of the rest of humanity, which only ended with his death. Who was that guy, anyway? Several legit biographies and a couple of tell-all memoirs by scorned loved ones have attempted to answer that question, with special attention paid to those later, reclusive years. But even taking them all together, one doesn’t get what feels like the whole story.

Rebel in the Rye doesn’t exactly solve the mystery of Salinger’s later life. Actually, it doesn’t even go there. But in chronicling the author’s salad days, it does give us a greater understanding of what those years of solitude were about. And it does so with wit and elegance, even if its graceful narrative flow often allows it to glide over and through aspects of Salinger’s story, when it might have done well to dig in a bit deeper.

Of course, such matters of consolidation are often a problematic necessity in the making of a biopic. But writer-director Danny Strong largely minimizes the damage, seamlessly segueing back and forth through time, creating an impressionistic effect that helps obscure the biographical gaps. If along the way a few warts get overlooked—well, that was to be expected.

The film opens in 1946, where we find Salinger (a Methodically immersed Nicholas Hoult) in the “nuthouse” (as he calls it, in a very Holden Caulfieldian narration). It’s an apt point to enter the Salinger saga: the post-traumatic aftermath of his stint as a soldier in World War II France—an ordeal that, as we see later, will take him from Normandy on D-Day to the Nazi death camps at Dachau, and include, among other horrors, the death of his closest Army buddy, right beside him.

The war is thus established as a truly life-changing event for Salinger. And yet, in terms of relative running time, it is given somewhat short shrift. This passage is artfully edited to convey the full impact, but its brevity doesn’t make a very deep impact. Case in point: the death of Salinger’s buddy. We only know they share a bond from a few scenes in foxholes. There isn’t even a snippet of a scene showing how that bond formed. Without that, the audience has no attachment to this friendship.

Relationships fare a bit better in the film’s pre-war first half, which depicts Salinger as a callow NYU dropout more interested in meeting pretty girls in jazz clubs than finding gainful employment that would please his businessman father (Victor Garber). Early on, it is pointedly observed that all the kid really wants to do is write. His only problem is that he can’t get published.

Enter Kevin Spacey, effortlessly magnetic as tough-love Columbia professor Whit Hubbard, who becomes Salinger’s teacher, mentor, friend and, as editor of Story magazine, the first man to publish a J.D. Salinger story. By the time he’s advising Salinger that his Holden Caulfield short story should be a novel, this has become by far the film’s most fully developed relationship—and the main reason that the film’s first hour is substantially the more resonant.

Salinger’s concurrent courtship with Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutsch), daughter of Eugene, had the potential to make this part of Salinger’s story even richer. But that subplot merely flits in and out, failing to build any depth or momentum, and ultimately leaving us less than affected when Salinger receives the news of Oona’s marriage to Charlie Chaplin, on the front page of the morning paper, while still at war.

The lack of adequate screen time hardly makes the most of Deutch’s vibrant presence, and one could make the same complaint about the under-utilization of Victor Garber and Hope Davis as Salinger’s parents, Sol and Miriam. The only other supporting player who gets enough minutes to run with is Sarah Paulson, who gives a tart and textured performance in several robust scenes as Salinger’s agent, Dorothy Olding. Would that all of the film’s featured actors had the same opportunity to strut their considerable stuff.

In its second half, the film is never less than interesting as it chronicles Salinger’s lingering PTSD, his paralyzing writer’s block, his embrace of Buddhism, his meteoric rise to post-Catcher in the Rye fame, his abhorrent reaction to press, publicity and the rabid fans that result, his self-applied pressure to live up to the hype, and his gradual withdrawal from the spotlight to go totally off the grid, on his way to what became a legendary seclusion. Throw in a glimpse of short-lived domestic bliss with his wife Claire (Lucy Boynton) and kids, and you’ve got a lot of Salinger’s life to cover in roughly 45 minutes. Needless to say, that’s not enough time.

That this film works as well as it does is largely due to the deft splicing of Strong and his editors, who increasingly resort to ellipses and montages, while packing in the biographical bullet points. Even when we no longer know what year we’re in or how much Salinger has published when he announces he’s done, the filmmakers keep us engaged, finding just the right moments to focus on while summing up a long life—or rather, half of it.

But for all its shortfalls, Rebel does succeed on maybe its most important level. No, it doesn’t reveal all the what of Salinger’s life, but it does give us the why. By the end, we do know who this guy was.

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