Rebel In The Rye: Literary legend without a script

By Jim Slotek

(Rating: C)

Take a hot young actor, surround him with era-appropriate jazz music and cigarette smoke, maybe a little mahogany, and stir. It’s a Muppet Babies approach to onscreen literary iconography that was already a trope before Rebel In The Rye came along.

(Think Daniel Radcliffe as the young Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, or Sam Riley as Jack Kerouac/Sal Paradise in On The Road).

But Rebel In The Rye does come to this approach with one thing going for it. Its title figure, The Catcher In The Rye author J. D. Salinger, decided to retire from public life while still a young-ish man. So there’s no mature, avuncular image of him to overshadow the brash performance by star Nicholas Hoult (Beast in the current X-Men movies).

Literary teacher Kevin Spacey counsels an angry, young J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult)

Literary teacher Kevin Spacey counsels an angry, young J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult)

Still, this biopic, the feature directorial debut of actor/writer Danny Strong, (who wrote the script based on Kenneth Slawenski’s book J.D. Salinger: A Life), is remarkably unrevealing about the motivations of a writer, let alone what made The Catcher In The Rye one of the most influential novels of the 20th Century.

The events are all there, and there are some soiid performances carrying the dully straight-ahead narrative (including Kevin Spacey as Salinger’s supportive Columbia professor Whit Burnett, Sarah Paulson as his literary agent and Zoey Deutch as the love of his life, Oona O’Neill, who betrayed him by becoming a middle-aged Charlie Chaplin’s child-bride).

The title probably conveys more about the film than intended. Strong practically superimposes the plot of the James Dean film Rebel Without A Cause as shorthand psychology for the guy who wrote profusely about “phonies.” I expected him at some point to scream at his father, “You’re tearing me apart!”

A delinquent rich kid with no discernible motivation for wanting to become a writer other than to tick off his dad (Victor Garber), Hoult’s Salinger is a party boy who uses his status as an (unpublished) writer as a pick-up line in bars. His teacher Burnett, putting a drunken New York writerly spin on The Paper Chase, is of the get-used-to-failure tough-love school.

Catcher In The Rye’s Holden Caulfield is already a persona in Salinger’s short stories before being drafted and invading Normandy makes him “serious.” Why? What purpose does he serve? Who knows?

All we get is that Holden solidifies after Salinger experiences the horrors of war (and a psychologically paralyzed stint in a mental ward), to the point that there is finally a novel’s worth of material in Salinger’s head. Maybe they could have actually made Caulfield a fantasy or dream character, so he could explain himself a bit.

The last act is, of course, Salinger’s career-stalling fame, and the remarkable experience of encountering delusional young men who believe they are Holden Caulfield. Again, this is merely touched upon.

Through it all, Hoult maintains a smouldering anger mixed with initial cockiness, which is all he’s asked for, I suppose. Rebel In The Rye does harken back to the last days when literature mattered – a lot. If it does it superficially, that speaks volumes too.

Rebel In The Rye. Directed by Danny Strong. Starring Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey and Sarah Paulson. Opens October 6 in Toronto at Canada Square.