The life of J. D. Salinger was not particularly interesting. Sure, there are a few intriguing tidbits about his relationship with his parents, his schooling, his love interest, his military service, and his exile as a hermit, but what else is there to this author? He spent so much time on his writing that he shut out nearly every other aspect of his life.
It’s hard enough to portray writing onscreen as something dramatic and passionate, but it must’ve been a particular challenge with a Salinger, a man who comes off as a crazed jerk with a rant of a novel. Rebel in the Rye isn’t so much about the man as it is about his book, Catcher in the Rye, portraying more about this book’s rise to fame than Salinger himself.
Nicholas Hoult plays Salinger well enough, with the right amount of angst, arrogance, and ego—he knows he wants to write, and that’s all he wants to do with his life. He goes to college and is instructed by his writing teacher, Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), that his chosen career path will be a maddening one; to prepare his student for the real world, Burnett pulls several “tests” of Salinger’s inspiration to continue writing. In one, Salinger tries to submit his first short piece in class for publication in Story magazine, which Burnett manages. The instructor refuses and tells Salinger to write something better, which he does—only for to Burnett to publish the first story instead.
It is then that Salinger devotes his life to the art of rewrites, driving himself insane with blank and ripped pages as he strives to write something great. And then he starts writing the character of Holden Caulfield, a peculiar figure who resembles Salinger’s more arrogant thoughts, expanding the portrayal from a short story to a novel at Burnett’s recommendation. Even when drafted into World War II, the budding author still finds time to scribble out more paragraphs in between the shooting. He comes back home and, after some meditation, begins the agonizing hunt for someone to publish Catcher in the Rye.
The movie is so focused on the making of the novel that we don’t get to experience any other aspects of Salinger’s life. We see the most character come out of Salinger when he’s talking with Burnett about writing—Hoult and Spacey have some great exchanges, despite being saddled with a script that has them talk about absolutely nothing but writing. But their writing banter feels more intelligent and engrossing than the rest of the picture, which forces cliché lines for shorter points in Salinger’s life.
Take the romance he forms with a woman who is the first to be critical of his success. They marry, have children, and live out in the country, but he continues to ignore his family to focus on his writing. This could make for great drama, but the script seems to ignore Salinger’s family almost as as much as he does. In a similar vein, the wartime scenes are closely shot so the movie doesn’t have to spend the extra money on staging large-scale battles. But if Rebel in the Rye didn’t want to show much of the war, why even bother showing it? Considering how everything else in the film is glossed over, I’m surprised the war scenes weren’t trimmed even further. And then there’s the psychological element of a stalking fan, which is creepy for one or two scenes but, again, is quickly forgotten about.
Aside from this narrow focus making for a fairly one-dimensional character, it’s very tough, as I’ve already mentioned, to make writing look dramatic and entertaining. As with other movies, Rebel in the Rye uses the old method of dramatic music, quick cuts, and montages of typing as the character narrates his text, building until the final push of the typewriter. I don’t mind this tactic so much if it’s just a part of a larger story about character, but, no, this movie is all about the writing. We’re not meant to feel some sense of the character overcoming an issue or learning something about them. Salinger just wants to write for the sake of writing, to the point that he wants to write an endless stream of content that he does not wish to publish.
Rebel in the Rye plays like a junior-high report on the famed author, covering all the checkmarks of what led to Catcher in the Rye without any of the nuance of what made him a unique author. The film also goes strangely easy on its subject, treading lightly as though the filmmakers were afraid to say anything bad about Salinger. And with such a handicap, it’s hard to feel any passion, imagination, or sympathy for the protagonist. I never liked Catcher in the Rye, but I was hoping that this film could at least give me a better perspective of its creator to appreciate his success and understand his writing drive. But I’m still not a fan, and I learned and felt very little about J. D. Salinger in this picture.