It was only a matter of time before we got a J.D. Salinger biopic. Danny Strong’s Rebel in the Rye , which premiered last night at Sundance to a warm reception, is actually the second narrative film in the last few months to feature the late writer as a character; October’s Coming Through the Rye was the first. But Rebel is the first true narrative film about Salinger’s life, and as such it holds some novelty value, since the author, who died in 2010, was famously opposed to any movies being made about him or of his work. (Though let it be noted that the great Dariush Mehrjui took advantage of the lack of copyright agreements between Iran and the U.S. to make a film out of Franny & Zooey, called Pari, in 1995.)
Rebel looks at the period when Salinger (played by Nicholas Hoult) took writing classes at Columbia, published his first short stories, went to war, and wrote The Catcher in the Rye. That’s a deceptively huge amount of story to get through — Salinger goes from impressionable young romantic to traumatized soldier to ambitious artist to literary celebrity and finally to ascetic recluse. To his credit, Strong gets through the material cleanly and swiftly. But he also takes his share of liberties, and there’s a certain inelegance to the way characters and subplots are dropped as the film marches along.
The film is organized around the various influences on Salinger’s career: The professor at Columbia, Whit Burnett (a very good Kevin Spacey), who teaches him that he can’t be a writer until he has given his whole life over to it; the New Yorker editors who awaken him to the virtues of minimalism; the Indian meditation guru who helps him realize that writing and publishing are not the same thing. Along the way, we see his romance with teen socialite Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), and his humiliation when, away at war, he learns that she had married Charlie Chaplin.
Hoult is charming as Salinger, and embodies the man’s extremes well. He makes a convincing young bon vivant, eager to dance with the prettiest girl at the club, and the actor’s pursed lips and sharp, attentive eyes come in handy when Salinger starts to show signs of paranoia. Hoult and Spacey get engaging, tender scenes together — the proud, passionate Burnett really pushes his young protégé, and their back and forth is entertaining. When Salinger leaves his mentor behind, the film’s energy can’t help but flag a little.
In the end, it’s all by-the-numbers stuff, and I wish that Strong had made some bolder choices in depicting a writer he clearly sees as revolutionary. If Salinger was a seismic new voice in American literature, doesn’t he deserve a more interesting movie, or at least a less cinematically anonymous one? Shouldn’t the writing of The Catcher in the Rye be depicted more creatively than with the usual lap dissolves? Who knows? For some, the highest compliment one can pay a subject might be to make a thoroughly conventional biopic about them. For the rest of us, Rebel in the Rye’s title will come off as disappointingly ironic.