A post-script at the end of “Rebel in the Rye” states that legendary “Catcher in the Rye” author J.D. Salinger’s seclusion and refusal to publish only made him more famous and revered. It’s tempting to raise the curtain on that mystery, but it’s like pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. Ultimately, what’s revealed in the new biopic of young Salinger, written and directed by Danny Strong, poses some interesting questions but doesn’t live up to the power of the mystery around the man itself.
Strong draws on Kenneth Slawenski’s biography, “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” to provide the details about what shaped the young upstart writer in the early 1940s. The young British actor Nicholas Hoult steps into the role of smart-mouthed Jerry Salinger, who’s bad at school, chases women and lives to write, despite the protestations of his father (Victor Garber). Kevin Spacey plays Whit Burnett, Jerry’s writing professor at Columbia, and their connection proves the central relationship to the story.
One of the main and most intriguing questions posed by the film is “why write?” It’s a question Whit demands of Jerry, but it’s almost rhetorical. In the puritanical form of writing that Whit teaches, and that Jerry adopts, the motivation to write is simply the writing. Write because you must, because you can’t stand not to write. Don’t write to “be a writer.”
This approach to writing comes into sharp focus in the back half of the film after Jerry’s chased every girl and literary magazine out of his league. After a bleak stint in the war, ravaged by PTSD, Jerry discovers meditation and begins to apply its tenants to eliminate the distractions of modern life. His monk-like approach to his work transforms his writing into an almost religious devotional experience, and he retreats to New Hampshire, eventually becoming a recluse and ceasing to publish his work altogether.
That emphasis on writing for writing’s sake and his obsessive sacred pursuit is fascinating and enigmatic. A philosophical, existential deep dive into this would have been truly original and striking. But Strong has laid out all-too-easy answers for this essentially curious question, offering war trauma and PTSD, as well as romantic rejection and an aversion to fame for the reasons that Jerry escapes to the woods. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if it wasn’t so neatly spelled out?
Hoult is such a strong actor that he capably commands the screen and holds attention, even when “Rebel in the Rye” is a screenplay desperately in need of some focus. We’re whisked back and forth in time with unnecessary flashbacks, and while the first half of the film is a romp, we’re quickly dashed through the horrors of war in order to watch the rest of the story unfold. The film often feels like it doesn’t know where to tell you to look, or needlessly over-explains in a reductive manner. It ends with a clunk, because ultimately, when the curtain is pulled back on the Wizard, isn’t it always a bit of a let down?
‘REBEL IN THE RYE’
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Victor Garber, Zoey Deutch, Sarah Paulson
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, language including sexual references, some violence, and smoking throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes