'Rebel in the Rye': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A handsome-looking but pedestrian biopic.

Nicholas Hoult plays J.D. Salinger as he prepares to write 'Catcher in the Rye' in Danny Strong's biopic.

An extremely conventional biopic about a wholly unconventional writer, Danny Strong's Rebel in the Rye focuses mainly on the stretch between J.D. Salinger's 1939 enrollment in a writing class at Columbia University and the immediate aftermath of his success with 1951's The Catcher in the Rye. Using a biography by Kenneth Slawenski as his guide, Strong — co-creator of the TV series Empire, making his feature directing debut — draws connections between life and art in ways many others have, but finds it hard to conjure his subject's passion for writing. Nicholas Hoult is sympathetic in the lead, whether he matches up to one's imagined version of the author or not, but it's doubtful that moviegoers will embrace the picture on a large scale.

Hoult has an arguable advantage in the fact that, since the reclusive Salinger didn't leave behind a trove of television interviews and the like, fans have no way of saying the actor doesn't speak like the man. On the other hand, we do have some photos, and the lack of resemblance between the two will be a hurdle for some viewers. (Hoping to establish Hoult as the future creator of Holden Caulfield, Strong makes sure to toss a "phony" into the script here and there.)

We meet him in 1939, as a floundering youth who seems to spend most of his time in upscale jazz clubs. There he puts the moves on Eugene O'Neill's daughter Oona (Zoey Deutch) and, after claiming to be a writer but admitting he is unpublished, is blown off. She'll come around, in her fickle way, once he has placed a piece in Story magazine.

Calling himself Jerry, he enrolls in a class taught by Whit Burnett (the editor of Story, played with relish by Kevin Spacey). Before the first class has even really begun, Salinger is sassing his prof, who responds with a withering dismissal of the essay Salinger wrote when applying to the program. Naturally, the two become fast friends, meeting frequently in Greenwich Village's Caffe Reggio to discuss the writer's life.

Spacey is dependably funny in classroom scenes, and doles out the usual wisdom about the need for an aspiring writer to get used to rejection letters. But when the film follows Salinger home, it has the same troubles most portraits of writers do: Despite offering some slow-mo close-ups of fingers hitting vintage typewriter keys and filling the soundtrack with overlapping voiceovers as words spill from the scribe's mind, it doesn't make the creative process exciting.

Instead, we get the mechanical details of a budding career. Jerry finds an agent (Sarah Paulson), publishes here and there and is turned down continually by The New Yorker until they like his first story starring Holden Caulfield — at which point he balks at the (not insignificant) changes the magazine's editors want him to make.

One night, a very drunk Burnett insists to Salinger that Caulfield is a character who demands a novel. The writer fears such a commitment; his mentor insists, and seems to win him over. But the next day is the attack on Pearl Harbor, and a long stint in the Army is not conducive to cranking out that novel.

Salinger is deeply traumatized in the war, but again, the film has a hard time placing us in his shoes as, for example, he enters a concentration camp and sees the anguish there. (It will fare better back in New York, capturing his unease at parties.) After the war, he returns from Europe and shocks his parents (Victor Garber and Hope Davis) by bringing home a wife they've never heard about; that marriage doesn't last long, and neither do plans to publish an anthology of short stories with Burnett's company. Feeling betrayed, Salinger stops speaking to Burnett.

Fighting PTSD and writer's block, Salinger finds some relief in Zen Buddhism and meditation. The way his yogi (Bernard White) becomes a kind of writing coach feels contrived, but leads to one nice exchange: Telling the yogi that he finally wrote a page the previous day, only to tear it up, the teacher asks: "Did you enjoy ... ripping up the page?" Salinger reflects and says, "Yeah." Before long, he's happily reporting "I ripped up five pages yesterday." Soon he has a finished novel, stardom, stalker fans and anxiety.

Strong shows us Salinger the would-be ladies' man and witnesses two of his three marriages, but doesn't get salacious about his oft-discussed affinity for much younger women. The closest he gets is, after the author's move away from Manhattan to distraction-free Cornish, New Hampshire, a pretty high-school girl charms him into breaking his no-interview rule. She betrays him by placing the story not in her high-school paper, as promised, but in a real newspaper; as the film would have it, this is what triggers Salinger's real reclusiveness.

In one of the script's more trite lines, Salinger says at one point that "writing's the only time I feel any sense of peace." And so he went out to the country, put himself in a barn, and wrote while the world moved on without him. Given the public's undying curiosity about the literary star who rejected fame, it's surprising he hasn't been the subject of more films. Rebel in the Rye shows how hard it is to satisfyingly pull that enigmatic man out of his hiding place.

Production company: Black Label Media
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Zoey Deutch, Hope Davis, Victor Garber, Bernard White
Director-screenwriter: Danny Strong
Producers: Bruce Cohen, Jason Shuman, Danny Strong, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill
Executive producers: Ellen H. Schwartz, Scott Ferguson, Matthew Salloway, Christina Papagjika
Director of photography: Kramer Morgenthau 
Production designer: Dina Goldman
Costume designer: Deborah Scott
Editor: Joseph Krings
Composer: Bear McCreary
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

106 minutes