Biography Drama

'Rebel in the Rye' Film Review: The man, the myth, the lackluster biopic

October 6, 2017Siobhán Finn

The Catcher in the Rye is widely hailed as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, and its author, J.D. Salinger, one of its greatest enigmas. Since the infamous recluse died in 2010, movies and books about his life have been popping up in the hopes of demystifying both the man and his work. Rebel in the Rye bases itself on one of them — Kenneth Slawenski’s biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life — but feels like an attempt to recount the more mundane parts of the author’s Wikipedia page in under two hours.

Prior to the events of the film, Jerry Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) is kicked out of multiple schools, which leads him to decide to go to Columbia to study creative writing. Not long after enrolling, he's challenged by his professor, Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), who's certain that somewhere within his favorite student there lies a great writer. Just as Jerry is finally about to have a story published in The New Yorker, however, America enters World War II, and he is shipped off to Germany to fight. When he returns, Jerry finds himself a changed man, unable to write.

Writer/Director Danny Strong manages to hold the movie together until Catcher is published. Once Jerry is confronted with obsessive fans, the need to keep publishing, and his worsening PTSD, his story becomes a series of loose ends in need of tying up. In response, the script quickly cloisters him in Cornish, omitting many of the author’s noteworthy friendships in favor of ill-fated romances and religious awakening. A brief interlude with Hemingway, for example, would have gone a long way in inspiring both the character and the audience to soldier on.

Otherwise, the plot is weak and not altogether dissimilar from other movies set in the era, with the one noteworthy difference being its main character's fame. Rather than a small town boy who returns home from war scarred, Jerry is portrayed as a native New Yorker with a literary agent and daddy issues. Since the audience already knows the outcome of many of these incidents (he survives the war, publishes Catcher, and becomes a recluse), there is no suspense except that which Strong manufactures, including the theory that Catcher was autobiographical.

With an overall strong cast, Zoey Deutch's over-the-top portrayal of aspiring actress Oona O’Neill is the surprising weak link. In fact, with the exception of Sarah Paulson as the aforementioned agent, the film's female characters exist only to provide banal exposition, flitting in and out frame with no other purpose than to be bystanders. Meanwhile, Hoult channels many swing-era greats to portray Jerry’s careless pre-war attitude. But although the X-Men star is engaging, his performance feels stale, and he never seems to fully embrace his role.

Despite its title, the movie does little to paint Salinger as a rebel. Perhaps, like Catcher's Holden Caulfield, the author's cynicism and dismissal of pretenders is supposed to smack of rebellion, but as depicted, Salinger's only rebellious acts were getting kicked out of multiple schools and deciding to cease publishing. That said, Rebel in the Rye may not be the deep dive into the life of J.D. Salinger it touts itself to be, but for those seeking out a primer on one of the literary greats of our time, it's worth checking out.

Rebel in the Rye releases October 6th, 2017 from Mongrel Media. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking. Its runtime is 1 hr. 46 min.

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