Faced with the question of how to respectfully dramatize the life of a figure as cagey as author J.D. Salinger, writer-director Danny Strong takes the conservative route with Rebel in the Rye by sticking to the recorded facts. Hewing closely to Kenneth Slawenski’s biography J.D. Salinger: A Life, Strong lays down the outline of Salinger’s (Nicholas Hoult) life leading up to his reclusion in New Hampshire after Catcher in the Rye brought him infamy, hitting upon his turbulent college years, his fling with Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), his myriad publishing trials, and his even greater test in World War II. Throwing all known facts into the pot, Strong even finds time for Salinger’s burgeoning Buddhist belief in nearly self-parodic digressions featuring a swami (Bernard White) armed with mouthfuls of screenwriterly wisdom.
In taking this long view, the film becomes a derivative and simplified bore, but it’s hard to say a more rewarding Salinger story would be one that speculates about lesser-known passages in his life. Strong is both hampered and overworked by the biographical record. While the epochal checkpoints that he’s tasked himself with hitting were clearly instrumental in shaping his subject, the decision to hustle in montage-style fashion through Salinger’s life reduces the man’s development to facile cause-and-effect relationships.
Making liberal use of inner monologue to give form to Salinger’s feverish stop-and-go writing process, Strong ties the epiphanies and crushing disappointments of the author’s life to key passages within his body of work. In doing so, Holden Caulfield becomes less a spontaneous fictional creation than the logical sum of Salinger’s romantic frustrations, his run-ins with hectoring authority figures, and his scarring visions of Nazi death camps (realized on budget here as blue-tinted glimpses of gaunt silhouettes and hands clutching past barbed wire). The whole affair suggests dramatic Tetris, and it leeches the artist and his process of any mystery.
As Salinger, the handsome Hoult can’t manage to reinvest the character with the complexities lost in the story’s programmatic telling, and he carries himself with a swagger that fails to sell the writer’s crippling neuroses. When the story reaches its post-commercial-breakthrough paranoia stage, Hoult’s tortured indicating is especially feeble. More fun to watch is Kevin Spacey as Salinger’s know-it-all mentor, Whit Burnett, whose progression from alpha-male badgering to pitiable inferiority and regret is made convincing by Spacey despite the reams of on-the-nose dialogue he’s given.
Joseph Krings’s editing is uptempo enough to keep Rebel in the Rye’s prepackaged revelations landing in swift succession, but the footage he’s been given can only go so far, from the trite color contrasts that delineate hopeful youth and jaded postwar years to the depressing overreliance on close-ups. A smarter Salinger picaresque might have kept the figure at a distance to reflect the public relationship to the man. Instead we get a strained psychological intimacy that actually just flattens a unique artist into yet more grist for the 20th Century Great Man mill.