Salinger: Film Review

The cult of J.D. Salinger will be burnished by this lively but superficial doc.

Filmmaker Shane Salerno's documentary chronicles the life and career of the "Catcher in the Rye" author.

Salinger, director Shane Salerno's comprehensive study of the life and career of J.D. Salinger, is being released at the same time as a brand new biography, written by Salerno and David Shields, and it comes with new revelations of a trove of previously unpublished Salinger manuscripts that are slated to appear for the first time starting in 2015. Given all the publicity that The Weinstein Company is expert at generating, the movie is sure to attract an audience. And although it is overlong, it manages to be fascinating for much of its running time. But it also disappoints on many counts, providing another example of hype outpacing actual achievement -- a syndrome that Salinger himself would probably have deplored.

Salerno is not the first fan to try to penetrate the mystique of his idol, who published his last story in 1965 but lived until 2010. One of the amusing aspects of the film is its report on the various fans, reporters and photographers who sought an encounter with the reclusive author after he disappeared from public view. Salinger’s signature achievement, The Catcher in the Rye, has sold 60 million copies, according to a bookseller interviewed in the film, and continues to sell some 250,000 copies every year. Holden Caulfield, the epitome of youthful cynicism and rebellion, has captivated high school and college readers since the book was published in 1951, and a few of Salinger’s short stories and subsequent writings added to his cachet.

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To many of his acolytes, the reverence with which Salinger is viewed in the movie will need no explanation. But one serious weakness of the film is that it takes his genius for granted -- and assumes the audience is familiar with it -- while failing to demonstrate exactly what made his writing so captivating to his admirers. In part this was probably a limitation imposed by the Salinger estate, which allowed almost no excerpts from his writing to be heard or seen during the film. Salerno interviewed many major writers -- including Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, E.L. Doctorow, playwright John Guare and biographer A. Scott Berg -- but few of them have any pithy, piercing insights on what made Salinger’s literary voice unique. We are also told that many prominent critics attacked Salinger’s later fiction, perhaps prompting his early withdrawal, but again, more detailed and specific criticisms would have been welcome.

When it turns to exploring the crucial events in Salinger’s life, the film offers more illuminating details, though even here, it suffers from omissions and questionable speculation. Salinger grew up in a wealthy Jewish family that fueled some of the satirical observations in Catcher. As a young man he was mesmerized by the teenage Oona O’Neill (who later married Charlie Chaplin), and this seemed to have established his pattern of romantic attachments to much younger women. Salerno includes great interview material with author Joyce Maynard, who met Salinger when she was only 18, though of course Maynard has written her own memoir of their affair. (One delightful detail is Salinger’s love of old movies; he had a large 16mm film collection long before the era of VHS and DVD.) A couple of other women with whom Salinger was involved contribute revealing reminiscences; the author’s two children, however, refused to cooperate with the filmmaker.

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One of Salerno’s main themes is that Salinger’s World War II experiences -- beginning with his landing on D-Day, continuing through his observation of one of the Nazi concentration camps, and ending with a stay in a psychiatric hospital -- had a profound impact on his life. No doubt these experiences were important, though they showed up only occasionally in his fiction, most notably in his memorable short story, “For Esme -- with Love and Squalor.” Another soldier who served in World War II comments on the wartime flashbacks that haunted him throughout his life. But this is indirect testimony and does not convincingly prove that Salinger felt the same way. Perhaps when the author’s unpublished manuscripts -- including two World War II novels -- appear, they will help to clinch the case more definitively.

The film also depends on a few too many dramatic re-enactments of events from Salinger’s life. Scenes that show his wife pounding on the door of the “bunker” where he retreated to do his writing add nothing substantive to the accounts of Salinger’s relationships with women.

The selection of interviewees is certainly impressive, and the skillful editing keeps the film moving briskly. Salerno offers an entertaining overview of the life of one of the most intriguing writers of the last century, even if the picture ultimately turns out to be less revelatory than all the advance publicity promises.

Opens: Friday, Sept. 6 (The Weinstein Company)

Director: Shane Salerno

Based on the book by: Paul Alexander

Producers: Buddy Squires, Shane Salerno, Craig Fanning, Deborah Randall

Director of photography: Buddy Squires

Music: Lorne Balfe

Editors: Jeffrey Doe, Regis B. Kimble, Langdon Page

PG-13, 130 minutes