Movie review: ‘Rebel in the Rye’ fails to answer big money question
Who is Holden Caulfield? He’s me. He’s also you, and anyone who’s ever read J.D. Salinger’s classic tale of disaffected youth. That’s the beauty of “The Catcher in the Rye.” It’s so intimate, so raw, so real that we instantly thrust ourselves into Holden’s shaky shoes. So how is it that this one character out of the millions of literary characters makes us so self-identify? That’s the big money question that the middling Salinger biopic, “Rebel in the Rye,” steadfastly refuses to answer.
So, what does that leave us with? Not much. But you have to love the irony of “Rebel,” a slick, superficial attempt to define the 20th century’s quintessential enigmatic personality by giving us the sort of commercialized phoniness that Salinger not only detested, but drove him into a decades-long seclusion in the New Hampshire woods. How writer-director Danny Strong failed to notice this fatal flaw is as baffling as his subject, who was so inward facing that he’s impossible to know.
But that doesn’t stop an overmatched Strong, a writer better suited to political satire, evidenced by the twin gems he wrote for HBO: “Game Change,” about the Frankenstein monster that became Sarah Palin; and “Recount,” his chronicle of a stacked Supreme Court stealing a presidential election from Al Gore. Where those films were as funny as they were brilliantly insightful, “Rebel in the Rye” is a bit of an overly regimented bore. Unlike Salinger, Strong’s film — like its source, Kenneth Slawenski’s “J.D. Salinger: A Life” — is rooted more in the obvious and perfunctory than the raw organics of a writer who hated nothing more than putting on airs.
With Strong, what you see is all you get, rendering “Rebel in the Rye” a by-the-numbers exercise in recalling well-documented tidbits about Salinger’s youth that most of his fans already know: His bitter, failed romance with Eugene O’Neill’s teenage daughter, Oona (Zoey Deutch, herself the daughter of a famous parent, Lea Thompson), who dumped Salinger to marry the decades-older Charlie Chaplin; His participation in the Normandy invasion and its aftermath that left him with a chronic case of PTSD; His bittersweet bromance with Story Magazine editor Whit Burnett (a plump and elfin Kevin Spacey); and his tormented relationship with his unsupportive parents (Victor Garber and Hope Davis), who would have preferred their “Sonny” enter the meat-and-cheese export business rather than waste his life on writing.
About all that can be said for all that is that at least it’s factually correct, albeit dull as dirt. Yet, the film’s worst liability is its star, Nicholas Hoult, an undeniable dashing figure, but hardly the right guy to play an author known for his swagger and often off-putting overconfidence. Hoult invests every bit of his being into the role, but like every literary historian of the past 65 years he is at a loss to uncover what made Salinger tick, and get ticked off so easily when anyone dared question his talent. Not that Strong’s script gives him much of an impulse to dig deeper. Like his director, Hoult pretty much goes through the motions, twisting his pouty lips every which way to project what he thinks Salinger, the man his pals called Jerry, is thinking.
Worse, there’s little offered in helping us grasp Salinger’s creative process. If the movie is to be believed, his muse was a Buddhist monk (Bernard White) who filled Salinger with Eastern-tinged platitudes that couldn’t have inspired the author because they don’t inspire us in the least. Which brings me back to Holden Caulfield. He is Salinger’s voice. He’s also our’s. But why? And, more importantly, why is Holden such an influence on deranged murderers like Mark David Chapman? I really wanted to know and stupidly expected “Rebel in the Rye” to provide a cognizant answer. That it doesn’t is totally Salinger. But it’s also deeply frustrating.
“Rebel in the Rye”
Cast includes Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Zoey Deutch, Victor Garber and Hope Davis.
(PG-13 for thematic elements, language including sexual references, some violence and smoking throughout.)