Shane Salerno’s exhaustive, exhausting documentary Salinger is an outsized A&E Biography episode, coursing with the strident urgency typical to anyone convinced they have something new to say on a long since played-out topic. The film is too engorged on its rich subject matter to be a beginner’s guide, but also too maudlin and faux-encyclopedic to clang with the resonance of a truly personal or artistic analysis. Salerno does have something of a “get” to reveal in the last few minutes, but the inquiry rendered in the preceding two hours largely adds up to a shrill compendium of mankind’s previous work on J.D. Salinger, sprinkled with new gossip, but apparently targeting people who don’t actually like to read. Rather than Jerome Davis Salinger himself, Salerno’s insatiable lust to put the man on screen emerges as the movie’s true subject.
Whatever prowess Salerno evinces in his many interviews—with old friends, comrades from WWII, ex-girlfriends, neighbors, colleagues, and celebrity admirers—is swiftly rubbed out by his toxic attempts to visualize Salinger for himself. The film’s most unsettling images are, at best, fan curiosities (like paparazzi photos of Salinger entering an SUV in his last years) and, at worst, dribs and drabs from an endless hedge maze of awful impressionist-reenactment footage, wherein a guy who looks more or less like Salinger (i.e. tall, white, dark-haired) is repeatedly shown chain-smoking and banging on a typewriter, scored to inevitable cascades of generic piano music. Salerno intersperses this memory-as-stage-play through the rest of the film, at one point featuring a little girl sitting sadly on the floor while the actor playing Salinger neglectfully chips away at his manuscript.
Salerno makes his points—about Salinger’s PTSD, his perennial fixations on naïve teenage girls, his oddball writing techniques, his pathetic track record as a father and husband—with such thudding “authority” right out the gate that it’s hard to avoid the creeping sensation that this type of film is precisely what Salinger was avoiding. Salerno aggressively paints the author’s impact on popular culture in twinkling dulcet tones reminiscent of a DSLR-shot campus recruitment video: “I’m John Cusack, and I endorse Catcher in the Rye!”
This isn’t to say that fans won’t find newly disheartening angles on the elusive author. Salinger’s biographers eagerly endorse the idea that he was, perhaps unconsciously, using his withdrawal from society as a means of engaging with it, and one bug-eyed sycophant who hunted Salinger down in the 1970s talks of a meeting wherein the author softened up after being told he wasn’t as “deep or sentimental as I’d hoped.” To consider this man’s classically presumptuous obsession with Salinger is to find oneself—illogically—rooting for the author. To greet Salerno’s film with anything less than skepticism is to risk becoming one of the gawking masses who prompted this iconic man of mystery to walk out of America’s great postwar cocktail party in the first place.