J.D. Salinger is 20th-century literature’s greatest enigma. Maybe the 20th century’s greatest enigma, period. But you won’t find much new light shed on the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye in writer-director Danny Strong’s polished but cliché-festooned biopic Rebel in the Rye.
X-Men alum Nicholas Hoult manages to rise above the tortured-genius claptrap as the young Salinger, a wildly talented but prickly short-story writer whose uniquely contemporary voice is nearly snuffed out by the horrors he witnesses during World War II. Kevin Spacey, as his friend and mentor, gives the film’s sledgehammer moments some subtlety and a bit of his signature special sauce. But Strong’s script is far too conventional for such an unconventional subject. (It would definitely spell bananafish as two words.)
The dialogue and voice-overs are too on-the-nose. Important events are glossed over, while seemingly unimportant ones overstay their welcome. Worst of all is the film’s troweled-on dime-store psychology: Salinger’s father isn’t supportive; his socialite girlfriend dumps him for Charlie Chaplin; after he stumbles onto Eastern meditation, writing becomes his religion. Added together, they make for convenient story beats, but they don’t provide any real or particularly deep insight into Salinger’s talent, his demons, or his curious exile from the world. In the words of Holden Caulfield, the whole thing feels a bit phony. C+